Sheryl Sandberg Leans In with Ms.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead, has already made plenty of waves and sparked much discussion, as has her nonprofit Lean In Foundation, which will provide training, resources and support for women to achieve their professional goals, and encourages women to form “Lean In circles,” which have been compared to feminist consciousness-raising groups.

We spoke to Sandberg about her new book, what she thinks of some of the criticism, what she’s doing to change people’s perceptions of women at work and how she aims to help women through the Lean In Foundation.

Ms. Blog: In Lean In, you theorize that if we get more women in power, they will make changes at their companies that help other women, and you cited an example where you got pregnancy parking for employees at Google. What other changes have you made for women at Facebook?

Sheryl Sandberg: To Facebook’s credit, they already had a lot of great policies in place when I got there. They offer equal maternity and paternity leave for four months and have many other family-friendly policies. We believe employees should work when and how they want. Now, that’s not true for every single job, but it is true for most jobs. Not every job in every single company can be flexible or remote, but we’re focused on making all of our jobs as flexible as possible for each specific job.

Also, we discuss gender issues openly at Facebook. I’ve talked about the success and likeability issue for women many times at Facebook. I talk to all our employees about it, including men, and it makes a difference in the culture. At Facebook last month we did performance reviews, and one man came to me and said he got feedback on a woman that she was too aggressive. Now most times in this situation, a man would go back and give her feedback in her review on how she should be less aggressive. But instead, he went back and asked that person why they thought that woman was too aggressive. What did she do? What specific examples did they have? If a man did that, would you say he was aggressive? And then they changed their mind, and he changed the feedback he gave in her review.

Frequently, we don’t talk about gender in the workforce—but how do we solve the problem if we can’t talk about it openly? The most important thing that Facebook is doing differently is we talk about gender and these challenges openly. I gave a talk at work one day and I got an email from a man later that who said he missed the talk because he had to drive his kids to school because his wife needed to do something for her job. He said, ‘Your encouragement made this possible.’ We need flexibility for men to be there for their wives and partners.

Some critics have said that Lean In only caters to working moms and is not very applicable to single, childless women or those with non-traditional careers. How might the “lean in” message translate for these audiences?

I wrote the book with messages for three specific groups: women, men and all of us collectively in the workforce. I think the messages in this book are for women in all stages of their careers, not just those who are already married with children. In fact, some of the most important messages are for women at the beginning of their careers. For women just starting out, I talk about the idea of ‘don’t leave before you leave,’ because I saw many women leaving long before they were having children.

There are also really important messages for men in the book, and many of the conversations about the book right now aren’t focusing on the messages for men. Gloria Steinem once said that we have seen that women can do everything men can do, and now we need people to see that men can do everything women can do. We need to encourage men and boys to be more nurturing and share in the parenting and housework. Four percent of stay-at-home parents are men, and it’s still viewed as abnormal. There’s a story in my book about a stay-at-home dad who was ostracized by the stay-at-home-moms in his neighborhood who gathered at the park everyday.

And then some messages in the book are about workplace perceptions of gender—and are not targeted specifically at moms but at companies, managers, employers. I’m not saying we should ask every employer to ask women when they’re having babies. But I am saying we should be able to talk about the decision to have children at work. We should, as employers, be helping women and men through this time in their life. We should be saying to our employees: ‘If you want to have kids one day, I want you to know that this company is committed to making that work for you. I don’t want you to be nervous to tell us or worry that you won’t get your job back. We support you. If you want someone to help you navigate through this, I’m here, and my door is open.’

There have been many media comparisons made of you and Anne-Marie Slaughter and Marissa Mayer. How do you feel about these characterizations of a “feud” between you and Anne-Marie Slaughter?

Comparing the messages of of any two women is never a good idea. People love to pit women against women, and it’s dangerous. We will succeed if we work together, not against each other. I agree with every one of Anne Marie Slaughter’s points about institutional barriers! She makes a lot of good points.

What is your reaction Marissa Mayer’s controversial ban on telecommuting, which was widely viewed as a step backwards for working moms?

I believe in focusing on results over face-time. I really don’t know specifics of what’s going on Yahoo, but I do think flexibility is really important, and it’s important for both women and men.

Along with the book, you’re launching the nonprofit Lean In Foundation. Can you tell us about how the foundation will be structured and what its goals are?

What is trying to do is take the mission of book—which is to get more women in leadership roles—and help women achieve any goal they have with gusto. There are three  parts to The first part is the Lean In online community on Facebook and the website, where people are sharing “lean in stories” of times they leaned in—or times they leaned out, too. We want honest stories about decisions people make—it’s not true that we only want positive stories.

The second part is the Lean In education. The curriculum is actually developed by the Clayman Institute for Gender Studies at Stanford. They have a program, Voices & Influence, which offers training to executives, and one of our co-founders Gina Bianchini attended the program and loved it—but the material was only accessible through this Stanford seminar for executives. What we’re doing is making it more accessible to everyone who might not be an executive.

And the third part is the groups, the Lean In “circles.” These are self-organizing—we have provided recommendations based on research on best practices from all kinds of other groups, such as weight-loss clubs, book clubs, and more. We did research on what makes small groups work and we put together a bunch of recommendations, but we suggest each group figure out its own rules. And then we’ll see what happens.

 Photo of Sheryl Sandberg by World Economic Forum via Creative Commons 2.0.



Nisha Chittal is a digital strategist and political blogger based in Washington, DC. She writes about politics, new media, and women's issues for a variety of publications including,, her personal site, and most recently, the Ms. Magazine blog.