Sheryl Sandberg Gave An Inspiring Graduation Speech—But The Real Message Wasn’t In Her Words

Photo: ChinaFotoPress/Contributor/Getty
“Women hold up half the sky,” said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, quoting a Chinese proverb as she spoke to graduates of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management in Beijing. It was a fitting phrase for Forbes’s most Powerful Woman in Tech, who has recently had to shoulder not just her high-powered career, but also a tragic personal loss. In May, her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg, died suddenly during a family vacation in Mexico, leaving behind Sandberg and the couple’s two children.

In her first public announcement after his death, Sandberg, 45, wrote on Facebook: “…as heartbroken as I am today, I am equally grateful. Even in these last few days of completely unexpected hell—the darkest and saddest moments of my life—I know how lucky I have been. If the day I walked down that aisle with Dave someone had told me that this would happen—that he would be taken from us all in just 11 years—I would still have walked down that aisle. Because 11 years of being Dave Goldberg’s wife, and 10 years of being a parent with him is perhaps more luck and more happiness than I could have ever imagined.”

Sandberg’s graduation speech was her first major public appearance since losing her husband, and while she did mention Goldberg when talking about what it takes to be an inspiring leader (“He was kind. He was generous. He was thoughtful. He raised the level of performance of everyone around him…”), she mainly stuck to the same message she has been sharing with women since Lean In was published in 2013. Be brave. Be a boss. And for goodness sake, be a woman who sits at the table—not stands behind it.

“In almost every country in the world—including the United States and China—less than six percent of the top companies are run by women,” said Sandberg in the longest part of her speech, which focused on gender equality. “Women hold fewer leadership roles in every industry. This means that when it comes to making decisions that affect all of us, women’s voices are not heard equally.”

She told graduates that in order to be great leaders, they must develop the men and the women on their teams, and she also called on them to strive for equality at home. “I believe that the world would be a better place if men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions—and the good news is that we can change the stereotypes and get to real equality,” said Sandberg. “We can support women who lead in the workforce. We can find more balance in the home by fathers helping mothers with housekeeping and childrearing; more equal marriages are happier and more active fathers raise more successful children.”

Sandberg added: “And I want to make this very clear—equality is not just good for women. It’s good for everyone. Female participation in the workforce is a major driver of economic growth. Companies that recognize the full talents of the entire population outperform those that do not.”

This message is particularly crucial in China, which currently ranks 87th in the world when it comes to gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum. (The United States comes in at 20th.) Chinese women earn, on average, 36 percent less than their male counterparts. There are of course cultural pressures holding women back as well. In 2007, the All-China Women’s Federation, which claims to support women’s rights, defined shengnu, or “leftover women” as any woman who is still not married after the apparently old, haggard age of… 27. (To put this insanity into perspective, that’s the same age as Rihanna.) A state-sponsored campaign was also launched perpetuating the message that women should stop being so damn picky about a husband and settle down already before they become undesirable. Leta Hong Fincher, who authored the book, Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China said in an interview with Duke University’s East Asia Nexus that women with advanced degrees were not immune to being affected. “Even university-educated, young women may internalize that ideology, because they don’t have enough access to more empowering sources of information,” she said. “The ‘leftover’ women media campaign is also aimed at the parents and other older relatives of young women, so even if the young woman rejects the sexist media messages, she still comes under intense pressure from her parents and others to get married.”

Sandberg defied shengnu and other messed up pressures and stereotypes women face with her words, but even more with her actions. There she stood in front of an audience, a COO, yes, but also now a widow and a single mother. Despite facing what must have been crushing heartbreak over the past couple of months, she stayed true to her fight for equality for women, and kept her message on point.

Before Goldberg’s death was even thinkable, Sandberg told women that “who you marry is the single most important career decision you make.” She echoed that sentiment in Lean In, advising women that “when it comes time to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner.” But last week, as she smiled and posed for photos with teachers, she proved something much larger: There are no guarantees in life. So find something you’re passionate about, and dedicate yourself to it. Dedicate yourself even when it’s hard, even when your life gets turned upside down, even when it would be so much easier to step far, far away from a table, or a boardroom, or an audience of people in caps and gowns looking for inspiration. Lean in, because that’s what strong women do. It’s the lesson Sandberg’s been telling us for two years—and now, she’s showing it. “Fortune favors the bold,” she said. Somehow, Sandberg is even braver than we thought.


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