Computing Profession

Sheryl Sandberg’s Keynote at Grace Hopper

Valerie Barr
Valerie Barr, Professor of Computer Science, Union College

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave the opening keynote on Day 1 of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Speaking primarily to the many students in the room, her focus was on why careers in technology are important, and why it is critical that women go into these careers.  She put forward three reasons why technology is important.

First, she spoke about growth.  She feels that the #1 driver of a career is growth, and the technical sector is all about growth.  Despite the overall economic difficulties, there are lots of jobs in the technology sector and many companies are doing a lot of hiring.

Second, the technology sector, and jobs within that sector, is having impact.  She posited that there are two ways that impact happens today, through political movements and through technology.  That all comes together now as social movements are fueled by technology, so involvement in technology is a way to have an impact.

Third, beyond jobs strictly within the technology sector, technology is  a main driver of the economy at large.  Technology contributes to a drive for efficiency in many other sectors of the economy, providing exciting job opportunities for people who have the proper background.

Then Sandberg talked specifically about why people should be computer scientists or, more broadly, study computer science to some extent.  She argued that it is really important to have technical knowledge.  She thinks that, even in her position, for which her economics background would seem ideal, that she would be better at her job if she had greater technology background.  She believes that technology skills will be "hugely important" for lots of jobs, even jobs like hers.

She also pointed out that STEM jobs are paid 25% more than non-STEM jobs.  In this context she reminded the audience that on average women in the U.S. are paid only $0.77 for every dollar earned by men.  In the tech world they do a bit better, earning $0.86 for every dollar earned by men.  She suggested that if we get more women into technology careers then this wage gap will disappear.  (I take issue with her on this, since eliminating the wage gap in one sector, or using one sector to eliminate the overall wage gap, will not necessarily address the larger wage gap that exists).

Sandberg went on to suggest that we have a "stalled revolution" for women.  Though more women than men graduate from college, get PhDs, become entry level managers, their progress stops at that point.  Only 16-17% of top corporate jobs and top positions in government are held by women.  Internationally, conditions for many women and children are still horrible.  This can change when more women are in positions of power.

How do we get there?  Sandberg next presented five thoughts or suggestions for "those who might want to stay in all the way to the top", who want to work their way up to top positions.

1.  Believe in yourself, don’t give in to the imposter syndrome, don’t worry that others will think you are a fraud.  In this context, Sandberg discussed her own trepidation about giving the keynote at Grace Hopper since she is not a computer scientist.  She said it is important to not underestimate your performance, and understand that your success is not just luck.  Women have to self-consciously take credit for what we have achieved.

2.  Dream big.  The ambition gap drives the achievement gap.  It’s important that we not worry that people won’t like us if we are successful.  It might happen, but the fact that increased success is negatively correlated with "likability" for women is largely the result of the fact that there are few women who have made it to the highest levels of success. 

3.  Make your partner a real partner.  Sandberg made the point that, within the U.S. specifically though it is likely true elsewhere as well, we have "made more progress in the workplace than in the home".  She argued that to succeed women have to create a home situation that is supportive, where the work is balanced.  She said "Partnership discussions are not just about your marriage, they are about your future".

4.  Don’t leave before you leave.  Sandberg urged the audience not to pick less interesting fields or less challenging positions because they think that in the years ahead they might decide to have children.  She said the most important thing is to keep "leaning in" and moving forward so that you have a job that is worth coming back to, and so that a company will want you to come back to it.  She also made the point that CS jobs are the most flexible jobs there are.

5.  Sandberg urged the audience to start talking about all these issues.  She said that women tend not to talk about being "the only woman in the room", that we generally don’t want to call attention to that situation.  But she urged people to push ahead, not to wait until they feel ready, not to wait until they feel balanced and secure.  She pointed out that for several years now she has been talking publicly about being a professional woman and, despite predictions by others, it has not ruined her career.  She noted that you have to gauge the situation, and she wasn’t suggesting that one bring it up all the time, but not to keep it totally under wraps either.

Sandberg began to wrap up by saying that her generation will not change us, that the students in the room are the promise of equality and they will have to change the situation.  While I agree that the students will have to continue our work, many of us in the audience who are older than Sandberg recognize that we still have to keep working at this, for the small victories we can achieve and in order to foster the efforts being made by those who are coming along behind us. 

Sandberg closed by reminding the audience that technology is improving the human condition, that social revolution is here, and that technology can empower underrepresented groups.  She ended with the slogan that is up on the walls at Facebook: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

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