Sheryl Sandberg’s unapologetic challenge to men at MIT

Sandberg shot it straight to MIT graduates.
Sandberg shot it straight to MIT graduates.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Risberg
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Rolling back the patriarchy can’t happen with women alone. For the #MeToo movement to reach its goals, men need to be partners in it. But too often, when the urge to fight sexism does hit men in business, they’re already in positions of power, usually alongside lots of other men.

Sheryl Sandberg challenged this norm in her commencement speech today (June 8) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, promising the graduates that “you can impact the workplace from the day you enter it.”

The Facebook executive began her remarks stressing the importance of ethical innovation. “It’s not the technology you build that will define you. It’s the teams you build and what people do with the technology you build,” she said.

The Lean In author and diversity advocate also emphasized that even the newest technology can reflect old prejudices, racism, and sexism. “Our lack of diversity is at the root of some of the things we fail to see and prevent,” she said. And then she offered a bit of advice: ”Continue to engage with people outside your discipline, your gender, your race. Talk with people who grew up in different places, who believe different things, who live and worship differently than you do. Talk with them, listen to them, get their perspectives and encourage them to work in and with technology too.”

The push for diversity was expected—it’s Sandberg’s bread and butter. What came next wasn’t.

Men: It’s time to stop making excuses

Referencing a survey conducted months after the start of #MeToo, in which nearly half of male managers in the US said they were uncomfortable having a meeting alone with a woman and even more uneasy having a work dinner alone with a female coworker, Sandberg directly addressed the men in MIT’s graduating class.

“For the men here: Someone may pull you aside in your first week at work and tell you that you should never being alone with a woman. You know they’re wrong. You know how to work with people in all settings and behave respectfully. So give them advice instead. Tell them that they have an obligation to make access equal, that if they don’t feel comfortable having dinner with women, they shouldn’t have dinner with men. Group lunches for everyone.”

To bring her charge home, Sandberg offered a personal anecdote from one of her first jobs, in which her male boss treated her differently than the two men on her team. ”He spoke to them with kindness and respect but belittled me publicly. I tried to talk to him, but that just made it worse,” she reflected.

Unsure how it would affect their own careers, Sandberg’s two male teammates, also recent college graduates like her, took it upon themselves to step up, telling their boss that the way he was treating her was unfair. 

“And he stopped,” Sandberg said, before taking pause. “Even if you’re the most junior person in the room, you have power. Use it. And use it well.”