Sheryl Sandberg: Companies Need To 'Lean In' As Pandemic Threatens Women's Progress

Oct 1, 2020
Originally published on October 2, 2020 3:13 pm

As a champion for women "leaning in" at work, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, is worried.

The coronavirus pandemic, and related issues like lack of childcare and school, are taking a disproportionately heavy toll on working women, with effects that will be felt for years to come, according to a new report from Sandberg's Lean In foundation and McKinsey & Company.

The sixth annual Women In The Workplace report found that 1 in 4 women are considering scaling back their career or leaving the workforce altogether — the first time the rate has been higher than it is for men. In the recent years, that number was about 15% for both men and women.

"What we are seeing in this report should terrify all of us," Sandberg tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "We are pulling the alarm bell here."

Mothers, in particular, bear the heaviest burden. As a group, working mothers are three times more likely than fathers to do the majority of housework. Women with male partners shoulder, on average, an extra 20 hours a week of that work, the survey found. The burden is even heavier on the 20% of mothers who are single.

Mothers of color face additional challenges. Black mothers are twice as likely as white mothers to handle all child care and housework; Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely. Latina and Black mothers also are more likely than white mothers to be their families' only breadwinner, or have a partner who works outside the home during the pandemic, according to the report's findings.

Sandberg says that COVID-19 "threatens to roll back the progress we have painstakingly made over the last five to 10 years for women in the workplace."

Alongside a supportive husband, Sandberg raised two children as she climbed her way up the executive ranks. In her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, the social media executive called on women to push past internalized sexism and embrace success. For women to advance, she acknowledges now, men also have to step up — at home and in the workplace.

The idea of "leaning in" also has been criticized as elitist, with charges of Sandberg being blind to her own privilege, and for downplaying structural sexism and ignoring racism.

Despite the criticism, Sandberg says her message still applies.

"'Lean in' was always about men doing their share and companies doing their share," she says. "So this report is not telling women to lean in, it's telling companies to lean in. It's telling companies to recognize that this wasn't working for women and mothers before coronavirus. And now it's much worse."


Interview Highlights

On whether the pandemic, which is magnifying inequities, undercuts the "lean in" idea

"Lean in" was always about women being able to go for leadership positions. It was always about men leaning in at home. ... Companies need to be flexible. Companies need to recognize the burdens women, particularly women of color, are facing at home. And companies need to adjust so that we don't lose the talent, the female talent, the women, the women of color that are so critical to doing well going forward.

On whether expectations of employees should be altered even as managers are becoming more comfortable with remote work

I think it has to be changed. And look, companies are under pressure, large and small. There's an economic crisis going on, but we have to think beyond the quarter and think long term. At Facebook, we canceled our performance cycle for the first half of the year and we paid everyone their bonus at over 100% percent, the same bonus. We just paid it to everyone. Because we were saying, we know you need to take care of your children and yourselves and elderly relatives. We mean it.

Companies need to adjust their performance criteria to recognize that there is a crisis. And then that old quote, "Crisis is a terrible thing to waste" — we need to take this as the opportunity it can be to rethink work. You're right, this report shows that more companies are open to remote work. Remote work, less work travel — those things come out in the report. Those things could make a very big difference going forward for women to stay in the workforce and be able to thrive.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

A couple of days ago on this program, we heard from Nicole Mason, CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, about how the pandemic is affecting working mothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICOLE MASON: Until we can figure out care, until we can figure out how to open the schools, you can just hang it up for women, for many women.

MOSLEY: Elevating women in the workplace is something Sheryl Sandberg is invested in. She's one of the forces behind a new report that backs up what Mason is saying. Facebook's chief operating officer says all of this - the pandemic, the lack of child care and school - presents an existential threat to working women for years to come.

SHERYL SANDBERG: What we are seeing in this report should terrify all of us. We are pulling the alarm bell here. This report is the largest of its kind. My foundation, Lean In and McKinsey - we put this out every year. This is our sixth year. It says that more than one in four women is considering downsizing her career or leaving the workforce right now, which means that right now this virus could not just be a health pandemic, could not just be an economic crisis but threatens to roll back the progress we have painstakingly made over the last five to 10 years for women in the workplace.

Women worked a double shift before coronavirus. They had male partners, or if they were single mothers, they worked in the office. They worked at their jobs, and then they came home, and they did the majority of child care and housework. But now the average woman with a male partner is doing 20 additional hours a week over what he is doing of child care and housework. That's because our kids are home. That's because everything's shut down for this virus.

MOSLEY: It seems like there's so many ways that this pandemic has exposed rifts and gaps in this economy for people, especially for workers. And for you, does it expose kind of the undercutting of the Lean In idea - right? - that basically, it does take money and support not just from work but from society, right? It's not just about what women are doing for themselves.

SANDBERG: And Lean In always understood that. Lean In was always about women being able to go for leadership positions. It was always about men leaning in at home.

MOSLEY: But the criticism was that it was about the privileged, and I guess that's what I'm asking. Like, right now is this a moment where it's really revealing that, like, there's a lot of women who are on the other side of that privilege line, who aren't able to marshal the resources you talked about originally behind that idea?

SANDBERG: Well, that's right. And that's why, again, Lean In was always for this. Lean In was always about men doing their share and companies doing their share. So this report is not telling women to lean in. It's telling companies to lean in. It's telling companies to recognize that this wasn't working for women and mothers before coronavirus, and now it's much worse. Companies need to be flexible. Companies need to recognize the burdens women, particularly women of color, are facing at home. And companies need to adjust so that we don't lose the talent, the female talent, the women, the women of color that are so critical to doing well going forward.

MOSLEY: Your report finds a positive shift in the way that companies see remote work, right? They're saying, OK, maybe this works after all. But it's not seeing a shift in the expectations of employees, and employees still feel a lot of pressure. As an executive yourself, is this something that you see can be changed? I mean, what's the reluctance here from managers, the C suite to see this?

SANDBERG: Well, I think it has to be changed. And look; companies are under pressure large and small. There's an economic crisis going on. But we have to think beyond the quarter and think long-term. At Facebook, we canceled our performance cycle for the first half of the year, and we paid everyone their bonus at over a hundred percent - the same bonus. We just paid it to everyone because we were saying, we know you need to take care of your children and yourselves and elderly relatives. We mean it.

Companies need to adjust their performance criteria to recognize that there is a crisis. And then that old quote, "crisis is a terrible thing to waste" - we need to take this as the opportunity it can be to rethink work. You're right. This report shows that more companies are open to remote work. Remote work, less work, travel - those things come out in the report. Those things could make a very big difference going forward for women to stay in the workforce and be able to thrive.

MOSLEY: Sheryl Sandberg, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SANDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.