Opinion

Sheryl Sandberg: We've got to get more women "sitting at the table"

6 min read

22 April 2016

Deputy Editor, Real Business

In 2010, Sheryl Sandberg delivered a speech that offered three pieces of advice to women aiming for the C-suite. We took a look at one of her tips.

Despite the Equal Pay Act having been established 45 years ago, women still earn less than men in Britain today – this difference is arguably the clearest and most dramatic example of inequality for women. But this isn’t the only hurdle that women face – stereotyping, unequal opportunities and the perception that they need to be primary child carers are but a few walls blocking the journey to the top.

And despite Scandinavian countries being at the forefront of gender equality, it’s a situation women across the globe are being faced with. The conundrum of why we have too few women leaders is a subject that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is most passionate about – having given numerous talks on the subject. But it’s her 2010 TED talk that unveiled three messages that needed to be taken on board if you wanted “to stay in the workforce”.

The first message was to sit at the table. At the time, Sandbery told a story of how Facebook hosted a senior government official who was meeting senior execs from around Silicon Valley. “He had two women who were traveling with him and I had to ask them to sit at the table with us – they sat on the side of the room. Here’s another story: when I was in college I took a course called European Intellectual History and I took it with my roommate, Carrie, as well as with my brother. The three of us took this class together. My roommate and I studied hard and attended most of the lectures while my brother read one book of 12.

“He then marched himself up to our room a couple days before the exam to get himself tutored. The three of us took the exam together. Afterwards, when we asked each other how it went, there were things Carrie and I thought we could have done far better, while my brother ended up getting the top grade in class despite not having known anything a few days prior.”

The problem with these stories is that they show what the data shows: women systematically underestimate their own abilities. Women do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce. In fact, a study suggested that out of the people entering the workforce out of college, 57 per cent of men are negotiating their first salary, and only seven per cent of women. And most importantly, men attribute their success to themselves, while women attribute it to other external factors. 

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This matters a lot because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side instead of at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success. “I wish the answer were easy,” Sandberg said. “But it’s not that simple as the data shows, above all else, that success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. There’s a famous Harvard Business School study on a woman named Heidi Roizen, who’s an operator in a company in Silicon Valley. She used her contacts to become a successful venture capitalist. 

“In 2002 a professor at Columbia University took that case and made it Howard Roizen and gave both out to two groups of students. He changed exactly one word: ‘Heidi’ to ‘Howard.’ But that one word made a really big difference. Both men and women, thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, and that’s good. The bad news was that everyone liked Howard. But Heidi? Not so sure. This is the complication. We have to tell our daughters and our colleagues, we have to tell ourselves to believe we got achievement A, and we have to do it in a world where sacrifices may need to be made. The saddest thing about all of this is that it’s really hard to remember this.”

To highlight her point, she told a story about when she gave a talk at Facebook. A few hours later, there was a young woman waiting to talk to her, whom claimed to have learned that she needed to keep her hand up. When Sandberg questioned her about it, the woman allegedly explained that after her talk, Sandberg said she would take two questions. When two questions were asked, the women lowered their hands, but Sandberg took more questions – from the few men that had kept their hands raised. 

“I feel quite passionate about the subject so it hit me that I hadn’t noticed,” Sandberg claimed. “It truly shows that we need to get more women sitting at the table.” 

Whether it’s a TV interview or filming a promotional video for your business, we also took a look at how you can overcome camera shyness.