Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wants to kill PC. No, not personal computers. She means the notion of being politically correct. And she wants to do it in the context of addressing issues of gender in the workplace.
On a panel at Wednesday’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, Sandberg recounted a recent incident where she was a keynote speaker with two men.
“The first man said, and I’m not exaggerating, ‘most women aren’t like Sheryl. She’s really competent. Most women can’t do what she does,’” Sandberg said. “The second man on the stage said, not to be out done, ‘I really want to hire young women, but my wife who is here is afraid I might sleep with them. And, I might. So, it’s really hard for me to give opportunities to young women.'”
Later, her husband said those men did Sandberg a favor. “A lot of men think that,” he told her. “They said it, they were honest and they gave you a chance to address it. I think the most destructive thing on gender is we have stopped talking about it. We have convinced ourselves that it is politically incorrect to mention it and it’s hard to mention.”
The Unmentionable G Word
Up until four years ago, Sandberg avoided using the word “women” in the workplace. She was afraid it could cause people across the table to feel as though they could be sued if they said the wrong thing. “We have made gender an unsafe issue,” she believes. “Women don’t want to talk about it for fear they’ll appear they’re whining or asking for special treatment. And men don’t want to talk about it because they’ll get into trouble.” Across issues ranging from mentorship to gender bias to pregnancy and child rearing, “not talking about it is not working.” Sandberg noted that labor laws don’t prohibit discussing gender-related issues, but rather discrimination based on gender.
Open conversations, she argued, can move the ball forward. Her brother, for example, once interviewed a woman to be on his surgical team. He commented that one day she might want to have children – a topic that other hiring managers avoid. He went on to tell the candidate that she wouldn’t lose her job or be given less interesting surgeries should she become pregnant. The discussion addressed how he would support her and work with her should she make that decision to have children.
Sandberg’s question for all of us: If we don’t talk about gender issues, how can we change things?
Here’s the video of the entire panel session featuring Sandberg, Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, and Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute.