TEDTalk: Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders

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In December of 2010, Sheryl Sandberg took the stage at the annual TED conference. Each year, the TED (technology, entertainment, design) gathers the most influential people on the planet to share ideas and encourage innovation. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, spoke on the controversial topic of women’s success in corporate America. While her speech was a brief 15 minutes, her message is one that has resonated with men and women and has brought the concept of gender equality back into mainstream discussions.

Background

To understand Sheryl Sandberg’s message fully, it is important to have an understanding of her career and credentials. By any measurement, Sheryl Sandberg has had a successful career. Both her BA in Science and her MBA were earned at Harvard and following college, she worked for the US Treasury, first as a special assistant and then as the chief of staff for the Secretary of the Treasury (Sandberg, Lean In). At the end of the Clinton administration, Sandberg moved to Silicon Valley and began working for Google, eventually achieving the position of Vice President of Global Online Sales and Operations (Sandberg, Lean In). Sandberg worked for Google for 6.5 years before moving to take the COO position at Facebook in 2008 (Sandberg, Lean In). In 2013, Forbes ranked Sandberg as #5 on the ‘Most Powerful Women’ list (Forbes, 2013). Her success in the male-dominated the world of technology lends authority to her message and an almost pop icon status to her fans.

At the time of her speech at the TED conference in 2010, Sandberg had been at Facebook for several years and had moved the company into profitable territory. Initially, Sandberg had been asked to speak at the conference on social media but when she started to write the speech, she changed to the topic of helping women succeed in the workplace (Sandberg, Lean In). In her book, Lean In, Sandberg talks about how nervous she was in addressing this issue and the criticism she received from peers after the speech was posted to the web (2013). However, Sandberg also recognized that by addressing these issues she could make a difference.

At Facebook, her relationship with founder Mark Zuckerberg is one of open trust and freedom. While some have referred to her role as ‘adult supervision’ for the capricious and enigmatic Facebook founder, Zuckerberg is one of Sandberg’s most ardent supporters and openly appreciates her contributions to the company and to society (Helft, 2013). All of these unique qualities blend together to produce both a brilliant businesswoman and a catalyst for change.

Organization and Content

Overall, Sandberg’s presentation was well organized and contained meaningful content. Sandberg opened her TED presentation with a relevant and emotional hook to her subject by stating, “So for any of us in this room today, let's start out by admitting we're lucky. We don't live in the world our mothers lived in, our grandmothers lived in, where career choices for women were so limited” (Sandberg, TED). From there, she goes directly to a clear and concise statement of the problem: “Women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world” (Sandberg, TED). In the first four minutes of her speech, Sandberg provides a wealth of statistical evidence to support her argument and illustrate the scope of gender inequality in the realms of government, business, and nonprofit organizations. In government, she notes, women occupy 13 percent of the parliamentary seats around the world; at the top levels in business, they occupy 15 or 16 percent, with the trend actually going down; and in nonprofit organizations, they occupy 20 percent of the executive positions (Sandberg, TED). Another important statistic that she provides is that, in the United States, two-thirds of male married senior managers have children, compared to only one-third of female married senior managers (Sandberg, TED). The implication here, although she does not state it directly, is that the men have stay-at-home wives who take care of the children, whereas most of the female executives feel they have to forsake having children if they wish to stay in the workforce.

Sandberg then uses a personal anecdote to segue to her presentation of the solutions that she proposes for the problem. The anecdote has an element of humor in it, which both reveals her personality and draws in the listeners. In her story, Sandberg was attending a business meeting. When it was time to take a bathroom break, she discovered that the partner running the meeting did not even know where the ladies room was after working there for a year. She asked if she was the first woman to ever-present there and the businessman tried to cover his embarrassment, suggesting that she probably wasn’t the first woman to present, but she might be the first woman to ever ask to go to the bathroom. With humor, Sandberg keeps her audience engaged in the presentation.

She then turns to her three proposed solutions to the problem: “One, sit at the table. Two, make your partner a real partner. And three, don’t leave before you leave” (Sandberg, TED). Initially, the second point came across as confusing because it did not specify whether the partner was a business partner or a personal partner. However, Sandberg clarified that point later in the speech. At this point in the speech, she did identify her main points, but it was already 1/3 of the way into the speech. Her points were clear and linked to the purpose of the speech but with such a short time to make her points, she should have stated these points closer to the beginning of the speech.

When she came to the end of her presentation, she did not signal with content that she was wrapping up, although her body language somewhat suggested that. She also did not review her main points. Instead, she concluded with a call to action addressed to her children and grandchildren, rather than to the members of her audience, for she offered little hope that the problem would be resolved by her own generation. Her call to action was very general and asked the audience to be aware of this problem and make changes. Her speech might be more powerful at this point if she had restated her three main points and directed the audience to a more specific call to action, however, her overall content and organization were strong.

Presentation Style and Delivery

As for her presentational style, Sandberg delivers a confident and assured speech. Although she came across as slightly tense at the beginning, she started to relax as she moved further into the subject. For example, when she tells the audience how lucky they are to be living at the present time, one might expect her to be more expansive with her gestures, but instead, her arms are close to her body and somewhat stiff. However, she is never confrontational and becomes more relaxed and warmer as she moves along. She was certainly very comfortable with her data and did not have to refer to her teleprompter for her statistics, even though we see at one point that she had one on the floor in front of her. She becomes most comfortable whenever she refers to her young children, which reminds us that she is not only one of the top corporate executives in the world but a mother like any other. That enhances her credibility on an emotional level, connecting her to her audience beyond mere words.

There is no podium for her to hide behind, so she moved about the stage comfortably and confidently, appearing to make eye contact with members of the audience, one at a time. Again, she has a teleprompter in front of her, but the viewer would not know that if the camera did not move behind her at various points to show the audience, so we never get the impression that she is reading. On the contrary, she modulates her tone to speak spontaneously and authentically, as if in a private conversation with everyone in the audience.

Sandberg demonstrates comedic timing when she tells amusing anecdotes, such as the bathroom incident mentioned earlier. Another humorous story she told was of her young daughter holding on to her leg when she had to leave for the airport to give this speech and again when she describes her overconfident brother in college who was sure he had aced an exam, although he had only read one assigned book and only attended a few lectures. Sandberg demonstrates several times that she knows intuitively how to set up the joke and pause for the laugh.

Sandberg never once stumbles verbally with filler words, and when someone hands her a microphone when it becomes clear that there are audio problems, she does not miss a beat. Her language is clear and direct, without any jargon, abstractions or pretentiousness. Her honesty and passion for her topic become apparent right at the beginning when she relates to the audience the story about her daughter grabbing her leg and telling her not to go on the trip for this presentation. Sandberg clearly understood that her audience would be tech-savvy entrepreneurs and business leaders. Given her work history at Google and Facebook, there was no need for her to establish her credentials or identify herself and this gave her the freedom to launch right into her subject. Sandberg’s confident and assured presentation affirms her position as an authority on the subject and frees the audience from distractive behaviors so they can absorb her message to the fullest.

Persuasiveness of Argument

As for the persuasiveness of her argument, Sandberg mostly makes logical and emotional appeals to her audience, with a few ethical appeals. Of her three solutions, all were logical and well supported in the data she provided. However, the first two solutions were not original to Sandberg. Her point about women sitting at the table with men, without undervaluing themselves, was a frequent theme in the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2008, as was the theme of creating equality with one’s mate at home (with Bill Clinton in the potential role of First Husband). By reusing the ideas of previous female leaders, Sandberg brings these ideas back into the public eye but also loses some persuasive credibility for not using original content.

The third solution, “Don’t leave before you leave,” was the most original and persuasive of Sandberg’s arguments. Sandberg notes that when female professionals start to look ahead to having a child, many of them subtly start to back away from the challenges and opportunities of their work. These women feel that they will not have the time, or perhaps even the energy, to perform at their best. The most striking example she gives of this challenge is a young woman who came to her with this worry, and Sandberg discovered that the woman not only did not have a husband at the time but wasn’t even dating anyone. This young woman was clearly getting too far ahead of herself. Sandberg persuasively moves from this point to a related one, which is that once a woman actually has that child, she better find her job challenging and exciting, because otherwise, she will never come back to it when her child appeals to her, directly or indirectly, to stay home. She will also have to accept that some of her male counterparts accepted promotions during her absence. Through these logical and persuasive arguments, Sandberg reaches her audience and supports the need for change.

Her conclusion held both an emotional appeal and humor as she stated, “I think a world that was run where half of our countries and half of our companies were run by women, would be a better world. And it's not just because people would know where the women's bathrooms are, even though that would be very helpful” (Sandberg, TED). Her humor helps the audience to relate to her and be more receptive to her message.

There are some logical arguments that Sandberg does not make because she feels that her audience already accepts her underlying premises. For example, she never presents evidence of any kind that men and women are intellectually equal, for she clearly assumes that everyone in the room already agrees with this. In other words, she does not have to preach to the choir. She makes her emotional appeals mostly through anecdotes about a personal experience she has had with people close to her, especially her children, her brother, and her college roommate. There are no real ethical arguments, other than in the conclusion when she states her opinion that it will be a better world when women run half of everything.

There are also logical and emotional arguments that Sandberg did not make, which could have strengthened her overall case. For example, she concludes by essentially giving up that her own generation will be able to achieve parity between the genders. Earlier, she even indicated that the situation is getting slightly worse in the business arena. However, she provides no data to support this negative view. She takes no notice of the fact that people, especially women, are living longer and that her generation has a lot of time still in front of it to correct the problem. Also, 60 percent of the college and university students in this country today are female. Here at the Anderson School of Business, the number of female students, now just above a third, has been increasing for the past several years. These demographic factors will play a critical part as the role of women in the workplace continues to increase in importance. Through her logical and persuasive arguments, along with her gentle humor, Sandberg appeals to her audience on an intellectual and emotional level.

Final Analysis and Conclusion

Sheryl Sandberg is a fascinating person with a very timely and intriguing message. Her speech at TEDTalk opened the door to uncomfortable conversations regarding gender parity in corporate America. Sandberg’s content was well organized and well supported with documentation and statistics. Although her introduction took up 30% of her speech, she used the time well to lay the foundation and illustrate the scope of the issue. Sandberg’s presentation was assured and confident which eliminated any annoying behavior patterns that might have distracted the audience from her message. Finally, her humorous anecdotes both entertained and engaged the audience as she logically presents each of her points and supports the point with examples. While there were some areas of improvement for this speech, Sandberg's brief 15 minutes brought an important topic back into mainstream discussions and is the spark that will hopefully ignite a lasting change.

References

Helft, M., (10 October 2013). Sheryl Sandberg: The real story. Fortune. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2013/10/10/leadership/sheryl-sandberg-mpw.pr.fortune/

Profile: Sheryl Sandberg. (May 2013). Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/profile/sheryl-sandberg/

Sandberg, S., & Scovell, N. (2013). Lean in women, work, and the will to lead. (Kindle version). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Retrieved from amazon.com.

Sandberg, S., (December 2013). TEDTalk: Why we have too few women leaders. (video). Ted. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandberg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders.html