Thursday, November 10, 2011

Stay In It, Sit at the Table, Raise Your Hand High(er): Sheryl Sandberg's Keynote at GHC11

Wow.  I didn't expect to dedicate an entire post just to one keynote at this year's GHC11, but Sheryl Sandberg's keynote really deserves it.  I strongly encourage everyone, whether technical or not, and regardless of gender, to watch her talk.  It's excellent.

In her talk, Sheryl addresses issues of gender differences in STEM fields and paints a pretty discouraging picture of the declining numbers of professional women especially in our field.  But she gave hope as well, with five steps we can all take to improve the situation:
  1. Believe in yourself: Sheryl  urged us to exude that extra bit of confidence we don't have, and to step up to take opportunities we aren't sure we're ready for.  Afterall, no one can succeed at something they think they can't do.
  2. Dream big: Sheryl pointed out studies that show declining ambition of women compared to men in a variety of industries.  She told us to be ambitious and 'keep your foot on the pedal' if we want to, or think we might want to, rise to the top of our fields.
  3. Make your partner a real partner: I thought this was particularly interesting because it's not something you hear talked about by many tech execs.  Sheryl advised us to find a life partner who would truly be a partner both at home and professionally, citing studies that show that women in a heterosexual relationship usually do more of the housework and childcare duties than their husbands.  She also said that if you look at top women in academia or industry, they all have husbands who are either supportive enough to share in these duties or who stay home entirely.
  4. Don't leave before you leave: I liked this advice as well since I've seen several acquaintances succumb to it.  Basically the idea is to not avoid taking on more responsibility, more contributions, or a new role/opportunity with greater challenges because you might want to make the decision to scale back down the road, or to improve your work-life balance in a few years (for example, to start a family).  She said if you don't have a job you value, you won't have something you love to come back to.  She also said women needlessly limit themselves before they even have to make the decision.  After many years speaking to Women in STEM student groups about working in industry, I can say I've fielded many questions from single girls in their early 20s about when the right time to start a family is, or how to balance childcare with professional life.  And, I can assure you, I've never had any such questions from male students.
  5. Start talking about it!  Sheryl said that people warned her not to start doing her talks on this topic (for example, at TED and Facebook).  They said it would hurt her career, but it didn't.  If we all start talking about it, it will be on the agenda, but she also said to pick the time we choose to discuss it wisely.
I thought Sheryl's advice was broad, timely, and inspiring.  She managed to bring together many facets of the complex issue of why there are declining numbers of women in STEM and offer real solutions.  Besides the content, Sheryl is also an extremely fluid and engaging speaker, and had the entire room of ~3000 GHC attendees on their feet when she finished her talk.  Please watch and share her video, it's worth your time and something everyone should be aware of and talking about.

No comments: