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Sheryl Sandberg on Honesty, Feminism, and Her Own Mom-Guilt

In an address to Harvard's class of 2014, Sandberg uses her own sometimes-painful experiences to illuminate her message to graduates.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's advice: Don't be hampered by perfectionism

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At her Class Day address to Harvard University’s class of 2014 on Wednesday, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg offered her thoughts on truth, careers, fairness and discrimination.

Not exactly ground-breaking stuff at this speech-heavy time of year. But Sandberg added a surprising number of candid personal touches, bringing her themes to life by referencing not only her failed first marriage but the inner conflict about work and family that prompted her to write Lean In.

During the first part of her speech, Sandberg urged her audience to be truthful with each other, and to listen carefully when someone offered the truth--no matter how painful it might be. She said that when her first marriage started to crumble after less than a year, "It did not help that so many friends came up to me and said, 'I knew that would never work.'… No one had managed to say anything like that to me before I walked down that aisle," she said.

By contrast, someone in her professional life--her first boss--did speak up, about Sandberg’s plans to attend law school. Sandberg had just deferred law school for the second time, and her boss said maybe she shouldn’t go, and that she seemed to want to go only because she told her parents she would. Sandberg didn’t go.

"I know how hard it can be to be honest with each other," she said. "But I bet sitting here today you know your closest friends’ strengths and weaknesses, what curves they might drive off of, and you've never told them. And they’ve never asked."

She also asked her audience, as part of that honesty, to speak plainly. "So often the truth is sacrificed to conflict avoidance," she said. She recounted a time when her boss, Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, was holding a meeting in Chinese with some of the company’s native speakers. He asked one of the women how it was going, and how she liked Facebook. She gave a complicated answer in Chinese, which he couldn't understand. He asked her to simplify. He still couldn't understand. After a few rounds of this, the woman finally blurted out, "My manager is bad!" That, he understood.

Dealing With Mom-Guilt

Sandberg then moved on to the difficulty of being truthful with ourselves. The topic she chose--guilt over being a full-time working mom--was surprising given her status as a self-appointed standard-bearer for women who throw themselves into their careers.

She said that after she became a mother, "I would say pretty often, 'I don’t feel guilty working,' even when no one had asked... Someone would ask, 'Do I need a sweater?' and I would say, 'Yes, it's unpredictably freezing, and I don't feel guilty working.'"

"People don’t start out lying to other people, they start out lying to themselves," she said. "And the things we repeat most often are often the lies." Sandberg, unfortunately, didn't say how she dealt with that guilt or whether she resolved it, but she did say she she spent the next year thinking about her role as a working mother, and talking with Nell Scovell about the issue. (I love that Sandberg takes any excuse to give a shout-out to Scovell, her not-so-ghost writer on Lean In.)

That reflection brought about Lean In, of course, but also Sandberg's development as a feminist. As a student, she said, she thought the feminist fight was over. Sure, most of the leaders in every industry were men, but she and her peers thought it was just a matter of time before that changed.

'The Tyranny of Low Expectations'

Nowadays, she said, "We don’t just hide from the hard truth, we suffer from the tyranny of low expectations." In the last election, she pointed out, women won 20 percent of the seats in the Senate, and the press treated it as if women were taking over. Her reaction? "Wait a minute, everyone! Fifty percent of the population getting 20 percent of the seats--that's not a takeover, that's an embarrassment!"

Sandberg then recounted another embarrassment, upon the occasion of her visit to a friend's private club in San Francisco. It wasn't until she asked a staff member where the ladies' room was, and was warned not to go upstairs because women weren't allowed in the building, that she realized it was an all-male club. Worse, she'd been invited to speak there soon. Her friend couldn't claim the club was only social, because clearly business was being done there if they'd invited her as the guest speaker. "Really," she said, "A year after Lean In, this dude thought it was a good idea to invite me to speak to his literal all-boy club."

Sandberg responded in a way she said she wouldn't have five years earlier. "I wrote a long and passionate explanation of why they should change their policies," she said. She also declined the speaking invitation. The club got back to her, thanking her for her quick reply, and said that maybe "eventually" its policies would change. She couldn't imagine the same thing happening if the club had excluded a race of people or an ethnic group rather than women.

"Our expectations need to change," she said. "'Eventually' needs to be 'immediately.'"

"I want to put pressure on you to acknowledge the hard truth," Sandberg told her Harvard audience. "The first time I spoke out about what it was like to be a woman in the workforce was less than five years ago. That meant that for 18 years, my silence implied that everything was okay. You can do better than I did."

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: May 29, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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