If you missed May's sold-out Professional BusinessWomen of California Conference, held in San Francisco, then you also missed Sheryl Sandberg's keynote speech. Facebook's chief operating officer has caused no end of controversy since the publication of "Lean In," her self-described feminist manifesto, earlier this year.
That's because many critics (some of whom have no doubt read no further than the cover) have taken issue with her book title's seeming admonishment to women to do more than they are already doing.
Yet when you read the entire book, you'll see this isn't really the message or the whole story. Just a glance at the table of contents, which contains a chapter called "The Myth of Doing It All," reveals Sandberg's agenda more accurately. In this chapter, she writes that the coining of the phrase "doing it all" is "perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women."
Sandberg continued to raise eyebrows and open minds in her keynote to the approximately 4,000 mostly female attendees at this year's PBWC Conference. She began her talk by asking all the women in the crowd to stand up if they had ever said that they were going to be the CEO of their company someday. Only a small handful of women rose to their feet.
Telling those still in their seats that "Men still run the world; I'm not sure that's going that well," Sandberg devoted the rest of her speech to showing women why they might want to step up and claim their place at the leadership table. Pointing out that the rate of change in getting women into the top jobs has stalled out, she noted that these dismal statistics are only going to improve when someone asks, "Are you going to be CEO?" and many more women rise.
Sandberg identified the following reasons why some women may not stand up:
You're not sure you have the skills or ability to be CEO. To this, Sandberg cited research that shows men remember their own levels of performance as slightly higher than they actually performed, while women remember their performance as slightly lower.
What's more, studies show men will usually attribute their success to their own talents and skills. Meanwhile, most women will say they succeeded because of hard work, luck and help from others - in fact, even other people describing women's success will cite these factors rather than crediting the woman herself. Sandberg encouraged women to remember these findings, take a deep breath and sit at the table rather than waiting until you feel you have 100 percent of the criteria to be CEO. "Your answer is 'Yes,' because you do," she said.
You think it sounds obnoxious to say that you're going to be CEO. Sandberg pointed out that getting past this mental barrier is about closing the ambition gap between men and women. She stated that starting in junior high, if you ask boys and girls, "Do you want to lead?" more boys than girls say "Yes." She added that we only call our daughters "bossy" on the playground, not our sons.
In another hand-raising exercise, Sandberg elicited that nearly all women in the audience had at one point been told that they were "too aggressive at work," and that research shows that when women show leadership abilities, they are less liked than men who exhibit the same skills. This is what's behind the leadership ambition gap. So Sandberg suggested starting to change this with our young daughters, saying: "The next time you hear someone call their daughter 'bossy,' interject and say, 'Your daughter's not bossy. She has executive leadership skills.'"
You want to be a good parent. No matter what gender you are, Sandberg admitted that it's difficult to take the top job and be a good parent. But she believes we're too hard on ourselves and each other about this dual role. "We can't be perfect, but we can be really good at both of those things," she said. She noted that "children with two working parents" describes most of the children in the world, and that studies have proven moms aren't hurting their kids by being in the workplace - even though there are still unequal expectations toward women versus men when it comes to this topic.
Between her seminal book and stirring speeches like this one, we've learned a lot from Sheryl Sandberg this year already. One of the most important lessons is that she's got us asking ourselves, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?"
Robin Madell has spent two decades as a writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership, career, and diversity issues. She has interviewed over 200 thought leaders around the globe, and has won 20 awards for editorial excellence. Robin serves as a speechwriter and ghostwriter for CEOs and top executives, with a specialized focus on women in business. She is author of Surviving Your 30s: Americans Talk About Life After 30, which is scheduled for publication in June 2013.