Sandberg Speaks on “Ambition Gap”

Amanda Golden

On Friday, April 5, Colgate University welcomed Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Facebook and New York Times bestselling author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” to kick off Entrepreneur Weekend. Sandberg hosted a 25 minute keynote address followed by 25 minutes of audience questions at Cotterell Court. The lecture was originally planned to be held in the University Chapel, but was moved due overwhelming number of interested students. Attendees of Sandberg’s talk received a complimentary copy of her new book, and the address was also live-streamed online for those who were unable to attend.

In between some of the earlier events of her day on campus, Sandberg took a few minutes to focus on Colgate specifically.

“I think [Lean In] circles can be really important in college and I really think, even in college, that we don’t spend enough time in a very structured peer-based way thinking about what we really want,” Sandberg said. “There’s a lot of evidence saying that peer mentoring is super important because peers can be some of our best mentors.”

Sandberg expressed how some of her biggest moments were guided by peer insights.

“In my life, there were times when people who I thought were my mentors told me not to join Google, but it was my peers that said to join Google and Facebook, so some of the best advice can come from peers,” Sandberg said.

Members of the Colgate community who heard Sandberg’s ideas reacted in differing ways, but overall seemed to acknowledge the merit behind

her messages.

Senior Morgan Roth, who attended the session in which Sandberg addressed the Women in Business group, shared her insights on how she felt

Sandberg came across.

“I found the most interesting part of Sandberg’s talk to be when she addressed how Lean In could be applied to Colgate,” Roth said. “At one point, she deferred to President Herbst, who said that the administration has and will try to support women on campus. Although I think he meant it genuinely, Colgate has failed us in this respect. Colgate has institutionalized gender inequality that obstructs female empowerment.”

“I think the other thing is for women, we need to make deliberate decisions,” Sandberg said.

“There are too many messages out there saying what women can’t do; women can’t be professionals and have kids, women can’t do this, and we assume that men can do everything, and I think that that’s what we can change, by believing it can be different.”

She emphasized that her messages are not just for young female students as the target audience, but also for male students and administrative figures. When addressing what the administration at Colgate could do, Sandberg shared specific thoughts.

“For the administration, I think it’s really about embracing these same messages of equality and talking explicitly about gender issues,” Sandberg said.

At the keynote address, Sandberg articulated her goal to the audience.

“I’m here to only do one thing with our time together,” Sandberg said. “I’m here to give you not just the permission but the encouragement to stand up next time someone asks that question. And I want to do that for everyone – for the men as well as the women. But I particularly want to do that for the women. Because the blunt truth is that men still run the world, and I’m not sure that’s going all that well.”

Sandberg shared how she feels that persistent inequality hurts both men and women.

“It hurts us because our companies, our universities, our institutions, are not as efficient or productive as we could be,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg noted how such kinds of persistent inequality hurt women at home.

“We know that regardless of income level, no matter how active a mother is in a home, children are better off in a home if they have active and engaged fathers,” Sandberg said. “They have better emotional outcomes, educational outcomes, professional outcomes. We also know that marriages are happier, lower divorce rate, higher marital satisfaction, when housework is shared more evenly. And if that wasn’t good enough, they also have more sex.”

Sandberg shared how, relative to levels of performance, men and boys remember their performance slightly high, and women and girls remember their performance slightly low.

“Even more importantly, if you ask a man why he achieved something he’ll attribute it his success to his own skills,” Sandberg said. “If you ask a woman why she achieved something, she and other people will attribute that success to hard work, help from others, getting lucky. And that’s a really big difference because if you achieve something, attributed to your own skills, you bring those skills to the next opportunity. But if you achieve something because of good luck and help from others, those things might not show up next time … Self-confidence is a major determinant of what we do in life.”

Sandberg addressed ambiguities associated with ambition.

“What I don’t mean is that there is only one form of ambition and every single person should want to do what I do or want to be CEO of a company,” Sandberg said. “We all have to choose our own path. And any form of ambition that is right for us is what is right. I’m also not saying that there aren’t women out there that aren’t as ambitious as any men

because of course there are.”

Sandberg then discussed the great gap between men and women in their desire to lead.

“The data is clear starting in junior high, in this country today, if you ask boys and girls. ‘Do you want to lead – do you want to be president of your junior high school class, do you want to be president of your Colgate class, do you want to run the division you just joined, do you want to be CEO of your company, do you want to run for office?’ more males than females say yes,” she said. “That’s a leadership ambition gap. And no matter how unhappy it makes us to acknowledge it, if we don’t acknowledge it we can’t fix it.”

Sandberg also mentioned how the likeability penalty can be a key detriment to the advancement of women. But Sandberg called upon the student generation in the audience as key to how that can change.

“The good news is your generation gets to decide what kind of stereotypes they want, you get to decide what you want to be,” Sandberg said. “You can decide that it’s better to be smart than pretty, and it is.”

The final way that women are held back, according to Sandberg, is the ideas surrounding the inability to be a successful professional and a good parent.

“My parents are here with me today, and from their generation to mine, we’ve made more progress in the workplace than at home,” she said. “Most women in this country work full-time, most mothers work full-time, and those mothers do the great majority of childcare and housework. The problem with this is women start worrying about this so early.”

Sandberg noted that what she’s seen in the workforce, more than anything else, is young women entering already looking for the exit.

“You may have children one day, and once you do you will have a hard decision to make,” Sandberg said. “Whether you want to stay and work full-time, work part-time, both men and women have that decision, but as we are now, and I hope to change that, it’s usually women. But, the best way to have a good decision to make is to lean in until then … Keep your foot on the gas pedal until you have those responsibilities, and then make your choices. Don’t do it too far in advance.”

It may be counter-intuitive, Sandberg says, but the single most important career decision is whether one decides to have a life partner, and if one does, who that life partner is.

“The only way to have real options is to have a real partner,” she said. “And this is important not just for the women but for the men, because again, your kids are going to be better adjusted and your marriages are going to be healthier and happier.”

In concluding her formal remarks, Sandberg called upon the audience to ask themselves what they would do if they weren’t afraid, if they weren’t limited by the ideas that they weren’t good enough or that they didn’t have the necessary skills to succeed at what they wanted to do.

Sophomore Rob Carroll also attended Sandberg’s talk, and shared how he as a male student at Colgate felt her messages came across as well as how the platform could be tangibly enforced and applied.

“I think Ms. Sandberg’s message is extremely important and meaningful for the advancement of sexual equality,” Carroll said. “We’ve obviously come a really long way in the past few decades with respect to feminism and Sandberg’s vision, but we’re still not there yet.”

But Carroll also commented on the ways in which he felt her talk could have been more potent for the given audience.

“A part of me felt like Sandberg could have done a better job of creating a call to action for men,” Carroll said. “I understand why it’s important to reach total gender equality in the workforce, but her message was obviously directed toward women much more than men, encouraging them to ‘marry the right guy,’ for example. I left feeling as if I still didn’t know how I could help the cause, besides just being more accepting.”