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How Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Breaks the ‘Girl Executive’ Mold

The lead story in the current issue of The New Yorker is a compelling profile of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

Ken Auletta wrote the wide-ranging piece on Sandberg, who is Jewish, and includes a bit about her recent speech to the women graduating from Barnard College, which also got attention in Elissa Strauss’ recent Sisterhood post.

Auletta’s piece is an incisive look at one of the most powerful women in American business today and why she doesn’t have more company at the highest corporate levels. He analyzes some of the factors women face in business — from blatant sexual advances to more subtle forms of discrimination.

He quotes Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project, who points out that Norway requires public companies to have at least 40 percent of their directors be men, and 40 percent women. That government can and should create realities that benefit both men and women is an important point, though one Sandberg has little control over.

He also quotes Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who is founding president of the Manhattan think tank The Center for Work-Life Policy, who says that “Sandberg totally underestimates the challenge women face in rising to the top” of their professions. That’s because she had a sponsor in Larry Summers — more than a mentor, a sponsor is someone who views it as his or her responsibility to offer those talented and younger every opportunity for guidance and advancement. Sponsorship is critical to women’s advancement, according to studies Hewlett has done.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Sandberg first got the attention of her professor Larry Summers in a class on public sector economics. Summers offered to be her thesis advisor, and then hired her after that as his research assistant while he served at the World Bank. He later asked her to be his chief of staff when he was deputy treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. Auletta says that despite Sandberg’s organized efforts to get more women at Harvard to major in economics and government, “she claims she was not a feminist.”

I wonder why she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, and if she does now.

Auletta deftly illustrates Sandberg’s inconsistencies when it comes to bringing women up with her in describing a talk she gave at Harvard Business School. Afterward, the women all asked questions relating to personal advancement, like about family leave policies, while the men present asked business-related questions, like about threats Facebook faces from its competitors. Sandberg criticized the women’s questions as “girl questions.”

But the article is an interesting study of how Sandberg breaks the “girl executive” stereotype. When she started at Facebook, Sandberg walked up to hundreds of employees at their desks, interrupted whatever other conversation they were having, and introduced herself. She interrupted them. Ever notice how, at work or at a cocktail party, men feel free to interrupt your conversation while women (myself included) are more likely to stand there waiting to be invited in? It’s one of those subtle cues of an interpersonal dynamic. Of course, Sandberg was the new big boss and most of us aren’t in that position. However, we all ought to be (sensitively) interrupting more.

She also scheduled meetings with senior executives from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.. Clearly she was not rushing home to be with her two young children. It’s not clear how this gels with a later statement that whenever she or her similarly high-powered husband is traveling for work, the other makes a point of being home with the kids for dinner.

Newly arrived at Facebook she developed consensus by, as she says, going around the room and asking people what they think. She managed to develop a sense of buy-in to the idea that Facebook would have advertising by soliciting their input, yet Auletta also conveys that she is a decisive executive.

It’s a great article, and also offers a peek into the Jewish home life Sandberg had as a child. Her parents founded the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry, and their home became a temporary hotel for Soviet Jews who had managed to come to this country; on weekends her parents took their children to rallies on behalf of the cause.

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