Sheryl Sandberg, Barnard College Commencement Speech, 2011

Sheryl Sandberg

Chief Operating Officer at Facebook (2008–)

When Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was published in 2013, it immediately shot to the top of bestseller lists. In newspapers, radio programmes and television talk shows across the US and, eventually, abroad, the book sparked a public debate about ingrained sexism in the workplace, and the internal and external obstacles faced by professional women. Two years earlier, at a Barnard College commencement ceremony, Sandberg had given a speech that synthesized many of the book’s key arguments. The chief operating officer of Facebook, and the first woman to sit on the company’s board of directors, Sandberg advised the young women graduating to ‘lean in’ to their careers: to avoid holding back at work because they plan, someday, to start a family.

‘As we sit here looking at this magnificent blue-robed class, we have to admit something that’s sad but true: men run the world,’ she said. ‘Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women.’ The corporate world was not much different, she added. ‘Corporate America top jobs, 15% are women; numbers which have not moved at all in the past nine years.’ However Sandberg, who worked her way up the hierarchy at Google and then Facebook to become one of the most powerful women in Silicon Valley, believes this can change. ‘But if all young women start to lean in, we can close the ambition gap right here, right now,’ she said. ‘Leadership belongs to those who take it. Leadership starts with you.’

Barnard College Commencement Speech 2011

Of course not everyone wants to jump into the workforce and rise to the top. Life is going to bring many twists and turns, and each of us, each of you, have to forge your own path. I have deep respect for my friends who make different choices than I do, who choose the really hard job of raising children full time, who choose to go part time, or who choose to pursue more nontraditional goals. These are choices that you may make some day, and these are fine choices. But until that day, do everything you can to make sure that when that day comes, you even have a choice to make. Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this:

Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.

These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back. The problem is, often they don’t even realize it. Everyone I know who has voluntarily left a child at home and come back to the workforce—and let’s face it, it’s not an option for most people. But for people in this audience, many of you are going to have this choice. Everyone who makes that choice will tell you the exact same thing: You’re only going to do it if your job is compelling.

If several years ago you stopped challenging yourself, you’re going to be bored. If you work for some guy who you used to sit next to, and really, he should be working for you, you’re going to feel undervalued, and you won’t come back. So, my heartfelt message to all of you is, and start thinking about this now, do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.