Facebook's Sandberg takes on the tech gender gap

Tech needs more women, she says, and women need to inspire each other

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said today that women need to stick together, support each other and be willing to talk about gender to bolster the number of women in the tech industry.

"We believe women are the best inspiration for other women," Sandberg said during a keynote session at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Minneapolis, Minn. "IT departments have 13% women, on a national average. We need to acknowledge differences, stare them in the face, acknowledge bias and change it."

Sandberg, who recently released the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, was on stage this morning with Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College, and Telle Whitney, CEO and president of the Anita Borg Institute.

During a Q&A session, Sandberg said women in general aren't getting the same pay, the same promotions or the same success and satisfaction at work. And the same is true for a technology field where women still are wildly underrepresented.

Facebook's top female executive told the story of recently being on stage with two men and talking about women in technology.

"After I spoke, the first man said, "Most women aren't like Sheryl. She's very competent. Most women can't do what she does,'" Sandberg related. "The second man didn't want to be out done. He said, "I'd like to hire more women, but my wife is afraid I might sleep with them. And I might.... I held it together, for which I was quite proud."

Sandberg said she responded by talking about sexual harassment and the need for women in the workplace.

However, she added that her husband later told her that those two speakers did her a favor because a lot of men feel that way and they gave her a chance to address it in public.

According to figures from the National Science Foundation, in the early 1980s women made up slightly more than 37% of the students earning bachelor's degrees in computer science.. By 2010, that percentage had plummeted to a little more than 17%.

Sandberg said people - both men and women - need to start talking about gender.

"We have made gender an unsafe issue," she added. "Women don't want to talk about it because they're afraid they'll look like they're whining and creating issues. Men don't want to talk about it because they're afraid they'll get in trouble.... If we talk about it, we can deal with it."

She also said women need to support and inspire each other to drown out the negative voices.

"Think about your career as a marathon," explained Sandberg. "Men and women get to the starting line equally fit to run. Men hear voices saying, "You've got this. Great start," Women hear, from day one, "Are you sure it makes sense to start a race that you won't finish...? Should you be doing this when your child needs you at home?"

She added that men simply don't hear those questions. They're not asked to choose between home and work. They're not made to feel guilty about working.

"These are the assumptions we have to change," added Sandberg. "It's the same in computer science. We have to change that problem."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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