Sometime soon after Sheryl Sandberg was hired away from Google Inc. to become Facebook’s chief operations officer, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked her the question that he puts to all of his employees: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

The question inspired Sandberg to write Lean In, a bestselling book that carries an empowering message for women in the workplace – it’s OK to lead. Sandberg had been thinking about how to properly address the gender inequality gap she saw in corporate America’s board rooms. After contemplating Zuckerberg’s query, she decided to write the book because it felt true to herself.

Published in March, Lean In, has become a movement in addition to a book, spearheaded by Sandberg’s foundation of the same name. Part of spreading the message involves asking young women around the world “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It’s lead to one 16-year-old writing down all of her fears in a book, with a life goal of being able to check off each one as she faces them. Another 28-year-old woman, Sara Kurovski, decided to run to be mayor of Pleasant Hill, Iowa and won with 78 per cent of the vote to become the town’s youngest mayor ever.

Action must be taken to disrupt social norms that continue to put men in positions of power more often than women, Sandberg told Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff during a keynote interview discussion on stage at Dreamforce. The annual conference hosted by Salesforce in San Francisco attracted more than 120,000 attendees and conference goers packed the hall to hear Sandberg interviewed and nab a free copy of her book.

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“Everywhere in the world we believe that men should be assertive, aggressive leaders,” Sandberg said. But that is not the expectation with women. It’s the reason that little girls are often told they are bossy, but little boys never hear that criticism. It’s also the reason women are often evaluated as “too aggressive” in the workplace but men never are.

“But follow up on it and ask if a man had done the same thing, is it still too aggressive? Almost always, the answer is no,” Sandberg said.

The systemic discrimination against women has led to few women on corporate boards and the average American woman making just 77 per cent of what a man would make in the same role, she says. With men embedded in leadership positions, it is more likely that other men will be mentored and sponsored to power positions. Not only is it natural to want to coach people like ourselves, but men are often worried about even being alone in a room with a woman.

“What do a man and another man alone in a bar at a hotel look like? Mentoring. What do a man and a woman alone in a hotel bar look like?” Sandberg asks.

Gender bias has to be directly addressed in organizations, she says. Mentoring women in a one-on-one scenario shouldn’t be a faux pas, and addressing maternity leave as not being a career show stopper also must be addressed openly. Women also shouldn’t be afraid of taking the rare career advantage offered to them as a result of their gender, such as being selected to fill a female spot on a board of directors. It’s needed to level the playing field.

“There is bias and discrimination against women all the way up,” Sandberg said. “In this instance, you’re right, I’m giving you an advantage, but that’s to make up for all the other systematic bias.”

The Lean In Foundation encourages professionals to start “Lean In Circles” at their organizations. Designed as groups of 10 colleagues – both men and women – that meet to support each other in achieving ambitions.

“If you’re the most junior level employee or the most senior level, and you can work better with 50 per cent of the population, you’re going to outperform,” Sandberg said.

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