Skip to main content

Sandberg: Speak up, believe in yourself, take risks

By Sheryl Sandberg, Special to CNN
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon March 18, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sheryl Sandberg: Men still rule the world, and we need to talk about gender issues
  • She says there are remarkable stories of women overcoming obstacles to success
  • Sandberg created organization to focus on helping women find paths to success
  • She anticipates day when half the homes are run by men and half the companies by women

Editor's note: Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, is the author of "Lean In." Watch the second part of Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg at 8 a.m. ET Tuesday on CNN.

(CNN) -- My hope in writing "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" was to change the conversation from what women can't do to what we can.

We need a national conversation that examines the barriers that hold women back and prevent us from achieving true equality. Additionally and just as importantly, we need personal conversations among us all -- managers and employees, friends, colleagues, partners, parents and children -- where issues about gender are discussed openly.

The blunt truth is that men still run the world. Of today's 195 independent countries, only 17 are led by women. In the United States, where our founding creed promises liberty and justice for all, women constitute just 18% of our elected congressional officials.

Since the early 1980s, educational achievement has steadily increased for women, while leadership in the workplace has plateaued. A meager 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women hold about 14% of executive officer positions and 16% of board seats. The gap is worse for women of color, who hold just 4% of top corporate jobs, 3% of board seats and 5% of congressional seats.

Laura Bush: My girls help others

Even more distressing, the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women's voices are not heard equally.

How do we change this?

As I wrote in "Lean In," women are held back by many institutional barriers: sexism, discrimination, a lack of flexibility and a U.S. public policy that lags behind that of most developed nations. But women are also held back by stereotypes that persist and remain self-fulfilling.

By talking openly about the challenges that women face in the workplace and at home, we can work toward solutions together. We can't ignore the subject any longer. We need to talk and listen, debate and learn, evolve and take action.

Work, family and 'leaning in': 7 families trying to make it work

To help address these issues, I co-founded Leanin.org, a global community dedicated to encouraging women to lean in to their ambitions. In addition to providing educational videos (such as "Negotiation" and "Creating a Level Playing Field"), Leanin.org also allows women to come together and share stories of how they have been able to overcome obstacles to pursue a goal.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Men, too, offer stories of how they mentored and supported female colleagues, friends and partners during key career moments. The stories are fascinating. Not every story will speak to everyone, but viewed collectively they illuminate and connect.

One of the most remarkable stories comes from Marie Tueller, who bravely and beautifully writes about how she found the strength to testify against her rapist in court even though he had threatened her life and the life of her child. This courageous testimony put him in jail for 31 years without possibility of parole.

Another story that I've read over and over comes from Kelly Wickham, an assistant principal in Springfield, Illinois. Pregnant at 15, Kelly persevered to graduate from college, become a teacher, earn a master's degree and take on greater and greater responsibilities at work. As she says, "In my second year of [graduate] classes, a professor asked why I wanted to become a principal. I responded that leadership found me, and I wasn't going to shy away from it any longer."

Former first lady Laura Bush opens up about her deep concern for children after the tragedy of 9/11 and her work to comfort their fears. Photographer Me Ra Koh found that photography helped heal her pain after a miscarriage. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii talks about how her mother worked two jobs to support her children. As the senator explains, "I was not born into wealth, power or political legacy, and my path to the Senate was improbable as any."

These stories are about women finding their voice and their strength. And while the situations vary wildly among the Lean In stories, a few messages resonate throughout: Speak up. Believe in yourself. Take risks.

If your dream is to be a firefighter and you're in law school, you can make it happen, as Brenda Berkman describes in her inspiring story. It took her five years and a major lawsuit that challenged the New York City Fire Department's discriminatory hiring practices to do it, but she made her dream come true.

Not all the stories are about leaning in. As I discuss in my book, there are times when it makes sense for us to lean back.

Musician Nancy Kuo writes about working as hard as she could, piling on gig after gig, until she decided to track down a father she never knew. The search ended up changing her life: "I'm not moving as fast anymore, and have found by slowing down, I actually have time to work on my most important relationship -- the one I have with myself."

These stories are full of strong emotions. I urge you to go to the site and find the ones that resonate with you.

Do you fear public speaking? You might be interested to know that you share that fear with Sandra Jurado, the 22-year-old national youth president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. And, surprisingly, with actress Reese Witherspoon.

Ursula Burns, chair and CEO of Xerox, shares a powerful story about her experience.

She writes, "I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor. Mom didn't see it that way. She constantly reminded me that where I was didn't define who I was."

We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.

I look forward to the day when half our homes are run by men and half our companies and institutions are run by women. When that happens, it won't just mean happier women and families; it will mean more successful businesses and better lives for us all.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinion expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheryl Sandberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT