How Do We Cultivate Women Leaders?

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on June 2, 2017 9:11 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Disruptive Leadership.

About Sheryl Sandberg's TED Talk

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gets to the bottom line for women who want to lead.

About Sheryl Sandberg

As Facebook's Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg manages Facebook's sales, marketing, business development, human resources, public policy and communications. Before coming to Facebook, Sandberg built and managed Google's successful online sales and operations program and served as an economist for the World Bank and Chief of Staff at the US Treasury Department. In 2013, she published the book, Lean In, and started the organization,

Sandberg opened up more about the struggles women have with leadership and success at TED Women in 2013.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, ideas about leadership - leaders and disruptors. Were you ever called bossy?

SHERYL SANDBERG: Yes. My whole childhood I was called bossy. You know, I was an oldest child. I organized the play of other kids. My brother and sister made a joke at my wedding that I didn't really play as a child, I just organized other children's play.

RAZ: This is Sheryl Sandberg, who's come a long way from showing off her executive leadership skills on the playground. She is, of course, the COO at Facebook.

SANDBERG: And the founder of

RAZ: Which is also the name of her book "Lean In," which became an instant bestseller. It's about women and the role that they should play in the workforce. Now Sheryl Sandberg may epitomize a leader, right. But that quality wasn't exactly encouraged when she was a kid growing up.

SANDBERG: I was told to put my hand down, to let boys go first, that boys should lead. And it's not just my childhood - I mean, I'm 44 years old - it's happening today. We know by middle school that boys are more interested than girls in leadership roles. And when you ask girls why, a lot of the reasons come down to, I don't want to be called bossy. It's funny, as I've gone around talking about "Lean In," my book, you know, I like to ask audiences questions. And I'll ask people, please raise your hand if as a boy you were ever called bossy. No hands go up. If you're a girl or a woman, please raise your hand if as a girl you were called bossy. All the hands go up.

So when men lead, they are acting in accordance with our stereotypical views of them. And we are fine. We're comfortable. We applaud it. When girls lead on a playground, they're called bossy. When women lead at the workforce, they're called too aggressive. Now the nice thing about this is if we acknowledge it, we can change it.

RAZ: And so Sheryl Sandberg has been trying to open up a conversation about women and leadership - the problems and the solutions. Here's how she opened her TED Talk.


SANDBERG: Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly. Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women. In the corporate sector, women at the top C-level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15 - 16 percent. And even in the nonprofit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top - 20 percent. I talk about this, about keeping women in the workforce, because I really think that's the answer. In the high-income part of our workforce and the people who end up at the top Fortune 500 CEO jobs or the equivalent in other industries - the problem - that I am convinced - is that women are dropping out. Now people talk about this a lot.

And they talk about things like flex time and mentoring and programs companies should have to train women. I want to talk about none of that today, even though that's all really important. Today, I want to focus on what we can do as individuals. What are the messages we need to tell ourselves? What are the messages we tell the women that work with and for us? What are the messages we tell our daughters?

RAZ: In your TED Talk from 2010, you cited a bunch of statistics, right, like 13 percent are women of parliamentarians. You talked about corporate boards, etc. How much of this has changed since you gave that talk in 2010?

SANDBERG: For the most part, the data's flat. There are a few more heads of state, but it's still a tiny percentage. The numbers in corporate America are particularly flat. So we don't see real growth. And what's interesting is how we, you know, react to this. So in the last congressional election, women took 20 percent of the Senate seats. And all the headlines were, women taking over the Senate, women taking over the Senate. And I felt like calling out to everyone, hey, 20 percent is not a takeover, particularly for 50 percent of the population. It's just not a takeover.

RAZ: Yeah. Do you think of yourself as a disruptive person, as a disruptive leader?

SANDBERG: You see, this goes to the female issues, right. You say that, and what I immediately want to say is, no. But then I wrote a book telling women we have to be leaders and own our success. And so I need to say yes. I am trying to disrupt the status quo. And I'm clear on that. The status quo, which is complete stagnation for women achieving leadership roles, is not good enough. I think our companies would be better off. I think our world would be better off if there were more female leaders. And so I do want to disrupt that status quo for sure.

RAZ: But, I mean, you said that, like, when you were a kid, everyone was telling you to put your hand down and to stop being bossy. So how did you become a leader?

SANDBERG: I think one of the things that was really important in my career is I heard a speech on this really early. When I was in college, I went to this speech on feeling like a fraud. And I thought it was the best speech I ever heard. And the woman who gave the speech talked about how men feel this way less than women. And so from a very young age going into the workforce, I - even if I didn't feel confident, I understood that I was sitting next to a man who probably felt more confident than I did and I needed to overcorrect.


SANDBERG: Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. Men attribute their success to themselves, and women attribute it to other external factors. If you ask men why they did a good job, they'll say, I'm awesome. If you ask...


SANDBERG: Obviously. Why are you even asking? If you ask women why they did a good job, what they'll say is, someone helped them, they got lucky, they worked really hard. Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side not at the table. And no one gets the promotion if they don't think they deserve their success or they don't even understand their own success.

SANDBERG: And that's the advice I'm giving women. I'm not trying to tell us to change how we feel because we often can't. I tell women sit at the table. Ask the question. Raise your hand. And so my message to women is, you don't have to feel like you 100 percent can do this. Try doing it anyway, and so many times you'll prove yourself right.


SANDBERG: I think there's a really deep irony to the fact that actions women are taking - and I see this all the time - with the objective of staying in the workforce actually lead to their eventually leaving. Here's what happens. We're all busy. Everyone's busy. A woman's busy. And she starts thinking about having a child. And from the moment she starts thinking about having a child, she starts thinking about making room for that child. How am I going to fit this into everything else I'm doing?

And literally from that moment, she doesn't raise her hand anymore. She doesn't look for a promotion. She doesn't take on the new project. She doesn't say me, I want to do that. She starts leaning back. I think as a society we put more pressure on our boys to succeed than we do on our girls. I know men that stay home and work in the home to support wives with careers, and it's hard. When I go to the Mommy-and-Me stuff and I see the father there, I notice that the other mommies don't play with him.


SANDBERG: And that's a problem because we have to make it as important a job - 'cause it's the hardest job in the world to work inside the home for people of both genders - if we're going to even things out and let women stay in the workforce.


RAZ: So that Mommy-and-Me thing, like, I have so been there sitting in the corner, like, by myself with my son. But, I mean, even the moms, like, seem to buy into this paradigm. You know, this idea that men lead, and that that's their natural role.

SANDBERG: You're making two hugely important points. One is that the stereotypes are holding men back as much as women. So just as we don't expect women to be assertive in the workplace and we punish them for being it, we don't expect men to be nurturers with homes and families. And the data on this is super clear. At any income level, regardless of how active a mother is, kids with more active and involved fathers have better outcomes. They do better educationally, emotionally, professionally. So these stereotypes are holding men back from doing what's best for their own families. The other really important point you're making is that gender bias is felt and experienced by men and women.

So often people think it's not bias because when a woman is disliked at work, they say, well, the women don't like her also. So it can't be bias. Exactly wrong. These stereotypes are held by men and women. Both men and women think girls are bossy. Both men and women think women are too aggressive at work. So just because women feel it, does not mean it's not gender bias. And understanding that all of us - and all of us means me, too, I'm sure I do this stuff all the time still - all of us are part of this problem is how we change it.

RAZ: OK. Ever since I heard you talk about his idea of bossy, right, I have banned this word at home. My kids can't call - and I have two boys - can't call the girls bossy, which seems to me like a small step.

SANDBERG: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

RAZ: Like, what's something that anybody could do, like, now to change this? So, like, in 10 or 15 or 20 years, it isn't the case that, you know, we're celebrating just 20 percent of the Senate made up of women, but that it's 50 percent?

SANDBERG: We can understand how we discourage girls and women from leading and start encouraging them. We can do that in little ways, in small ways. It starts with not calling your daughter bossy. And then in the workplace about saying that woman's not too aggressive, that woman is leading and getting results. The nice thing about all of this is we can do it today. You know, you made that change in your home in a minute. That's how this is going to happen.

RAZ: Sheryl Sandberg. She's the COO at Facebook and founder of You can see her full talk and a Q&A session she did at TEDWomen by visiting Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.