For years, Sheryl Sandberg has been at the forefront of women’s fight for professional equality. The Facebook chief operating officer’s 2013 book Lean In sparked innumerable contentious, essential debates about how women can advance in the workplace.
But in a new interview with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Sandberg flips the narrative, sharing advice about what men can do to fight workplace sexism. Speaking on “Master of Scale,” Hoffman’s podcast, her message is both clear and cutting: Men need to care enough about gender equality to act.
Aggressively push against biases
Well-intentioned men are often eager to know how they can be better allies. When Hoffman asks how men can help the “Lean In mission,” Sandberg replies: “The way to help is to recognize that there are all of these biases, and push against them, and push against them aggressively.”
The problem, as feminist writer Lindy West points out in her New York Times column “Real Men Get Made Fun Of,” is that while men may want to help, they often hesitate to stick up for women and minorities when push comes to shove. They’re aware that calling out sexism when they see it may mean facing mockery, condescension, or rebuke. But as West writes:
“Getting yelled at and made fun of is where many of us live all the time. Speaking up costs us friends, jobs, credibility and invisible opportunities we’ll never even know enough about to regret.
I know there’s pressure not to be a dorky, try-hard male feminist stereotype; there’s always a looming implication that you could lose your spot in the club; if you seem opportunistic or performative in your support, if you suck up too much oxygen and demand praise, women will yell at you for that too. But I need you to absorb that risk. I need you to get yelled at and made fun of, a lot, and if you get kicked out of the club, I need you to be relieved, and I need you to help build a new one.”
The first step, then, is for men to decide that they will be allies not only in spirit, but in action.
Give women the credit they deserve
Sandberg also points out that many studies have proven women are far less likely than men to receive credit for comments and ideas they share in meetings.
“If you are a man in that meeting—and you don’t have to be the boss, you could be a colleague—and that happens, you could say, ‘That’s a great idea—Liz, that was your idea. Tell us about it,'” says Sandberg. “You don’t even have to say you stole her idea, just give the woman credit. Give the girl credit if it’s in a classroom.”
The phenomenon of women not receiving credit for their work is partially attributable to the double bind that women constantly face in meetings, email, and everywhere in between. “When a woman speaks in a professional setting, she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive,” Sandberg and organizational psychologist Adam Grant write in the New York Times. Women of color can be even more strongly affected, as West points out: “People of color not only have to deal with racism; they also have to deal with white people labeling them “angry” or “hostile” or “difficult” for objecting.”
But as most women know, blaming sexism entirely on implicit biases is a copout. Women are consistently denied credit for their ideas, promotions, and equal salaries because men—who are usually the gatekeepers to professional advancement—do nothing.
Don’t make assumptions about what women want
Men also need to check their instinct to make assumptions about what is best for their female colleagues. “Don’t have private conversations where a woman’s pregnant and you say, ‘We’re not going to offer her that job, she’s pregnant.’ Ask her,” she says to Hoffman. “She might decide she doesn’t want to travel more, but she might decide she wants to do it. So often, we take opportunities away from women, because we assume we know what they want, rather than giving them the full opportunities they deserve.”
Patronizing as such a situation may sound, Sandberg has work experience at some of the most “progressive” companies in the world. Even progressive workplaces may fall prey to stereotypical assumptions about what women want for their lives and careers. So it’s crucial that men check their belief that they’re mind readers—or, worse, their colleagues’ parents.
Make professional connections with women
Another way that men inadvertently hoard opportunities, says Sandberg, is by avoiding situations where they might be alone with another woman. “A huge percentage of men are literally afraid to be seen one-on-one alone with a woman,” she says. “Where do you think the mentoring happens?”
The US had a national conversation about this phenomenon earlier this year when word broke that vice president Mike Pence refuses to dine alone with any woman who is not his wife. As Jill Filipovic explains in Cosmopolitan, this mindset has an enormous cost for gender equality.
“In politics, after-work dinners and drinks are where meetings are routinely held, strategies are hashed out, career advice is doled out, information is shared, and relationships are built.
If men like Pence won’t engage with women one-on-one in informal settings, it’s the women who miss out — because it’s still men who run the show. It would be awfully hard for a woman in any high-powered industry to have a same-sex-only dining rule, because there are simply so few women at the top of their fields in politics, business, technology, and law. Ladies-only lunching (or dining of any kind) would mean the inability to meet individually and informally with the overwhelming majority of leaders in your field.”
Some men may argue that they want to mentor women, but can’t for fear of appearing sexually motivated. This argument isn’t crazy, in light of this year’s highly publicized Silicon Valley sexual harassment scandals—but it is inherently sexist.
The reality is that the vast majority of straight men are fully capable of spending time alone with women without cheating or committing sexual harassment, Filipovic writes. “Perhaps men who can’t be alone with women without being sexually tempted by them are a liability, and shouldn’t be in charge of anyone or anything.”
And if men feel uncomfortable with being alone with women colleagues in a specific scenario, they can simply change the scenario. Sandberg offers a story about a partner at Goldman Sachs. “He had daughters, and he realized he was totally comfortable having dinners with men, but not women,” she says. “So he decided—no dinners.”
The same logic should apply to athletic outings, drinks, or other networking opportunities that men “don’t feel totally comfortable” partaking in with women (or, more importantly, that women are systematically excluded from partaking in with men). Another man Sandberg spoke with realized he only traveled with the young men in his office—so he made a commitment to start taking women too.
“Either way is fine,” concludes Sandberg. “You may decide—all the travel, all the dinners, no travel, no dinners—but whatever you decide make it explicit, and make it equal.” We’ll toast to that.