WASHINGTON, April 10, 2015 – The military can take the lead in breaking down the biases against women and people of diverse backgrounds, to create a stronger force and set the path for the nation, said Sheryl Sandberg, best-selling author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead," who spoke April 9 to a standing-room audience at the Pentagon.
Diversity in top leadership positions is "mission critical" to the military or any organization, she said.
Studies have shown that a diverse group makes better decisions.
But, she said, "we are not getting women into leadership roles in real numbers in any sector" whether it is Fortune 500 companies, the Senate, or the military.
The long-standing biases that prevent women from advancing professionally need to be overcome, Sandberg said. The military can help kick start the effort.
"I believe that the United States military has an incredibly important role to play here," she said. "If you look at the history of desegregation, the military led; a lot of the good things that happened in our society happened here first.
"If we want to increase our progress along racial discrimination, if we want to increase our progress along the leadership gaps of women and people of color, the military has to lead," she said.
Making progress in getting women in leadership roles and discussing the wage gap between men and women are topics that are "really hard to talk about," Sandberg said. "What I think will make the really big difference is if we can make sure we explain that as mission-critical leadership."
The conversation about women in leadership positions is particularly important to the Department of Defense today, as the military goes through "dynamic changes" that include opening more jobs to women, said Laura Junor, the principal deputy under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Junor, who described those changes as exciting and historic, also noted how the Department of Defense is shrinking, in both the civilian and military workforce. With that in mind, DOD is going to see "more complex" demands being tackled by fewer people, she said.
"With a smaller workforce, we have to make the most of all of your potential," Junor said. "We have to be the employer of choice. We also have to work to support, motivate and make sure that we enable you to commit fully to develop your talents."
Addressing Biases Head-On
"Leadership is about getting people to follow you - because they want to - and they believe," Sandberg said. "Leadership is the ability to use the full talents of the population to get the very best from everyone regardless of gender or race or background or age."
Sandberg, who is currently Facebook's chief operating officer and was previously a top Google executive and chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury Department, said she "never spoke about being a woman" when she was rising in her career.
"Because if you speak about being a woman, the person on the other side of the table thinks you're whining, complaining, asking for special treatment ... " she said.
"What we are currently doing is not working; the veil of silence is not creating an equal playing field. We need to acknowledge the issues, acknowledge the biases and counteract them," she said.
The biases include that women are underestimated on their work performance. They are also tasked with note-taking and other "office housework" duties in the workplace, she said. As a note-taker, they would not be the one speaking and making a great point that would get them noticed and promoted.
Success for women is viewed differently than success for men, Sandberg pointed out. While power and success are positively correlated for men, they are negatively associated for women.
"When women get more powerful and successful, they are less liked," she said.
A successful woman might be described as aggressive, political, not well-liked by her peers, too ambitious, or someone who just got lucky. A man in power, however, might be viewed as someone with leadership skills who rose to the top because of his talents, she said.
Counteracting Ingrained Biases
In polling the audience, Sandberg demonstrated how men are not told they should be at home caring for their children instead of working.
She said, "Women, raise your hand if anyone has ever said to you, 'Should you be working?'" with many in the room raising their hands. "We constantly tell women they can't have it all."
The biases are deeply ingrained in all of us, men and women, she said. "We react without even realizing we're doing it."
Girls are described as "bossy," while boys aren't, she pointed out.
"When a little boy leads, it is expected, but when a little girl leads, it's not," she said.
When someone hears a girl being described as bossy, Sandberg suggested saying to the parent, "'That little girl's not bossy, that little girl has executive leadership skills.'"
The reaction from the audience: laughter and applause.
"I'm going to pause for one moment on that," she said. "I'm going to say it the other way, 'That little boy has executive leadership skills.'" There was no laughter or applause from the audience.
"That's because humor is about going against our expectations. It's funny because you're surprised. If you want to understand why there are no four-star female generals in the Army right now, or why Silicon Valley has two female CEOs, you just understood it," she said.
"We do not like leadership in girls and women," she said.
What needs to be done, Sandberg said, is for all of us to shed the biases, continue to have those hard discussions, and put women in the military jobs that put them on the path to be a general officer. Everyone will benefit from women and diversity, she said.
In closing her presentation, Sandberg thanked the men and women who serve the nation.
"I think Facebook has an important mission; I'm proud to work on it," she said.
"I don't think anything is as important as the mission that you all have," the technology executive said. "You keep us safe, you keep the world open to democracy, and boy is it a complicated, scary world out there. What you do has never been more important."