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 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT