Sheryl Sandberg Asks: What Would You Do If...?

by Nathalie O'Neill

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? That's the question Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization are asking young women across the country in a new campaign. It's the groups newest go-get-'em bid for the since Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was published in March. With her book enjoying its tenth week on the New York Times bestseller list (you know you've at least thumbed through it at the bookstore, if not read it), people are listening--and answering.

The If You Weren’t Afraid campaign launched last week with a short video expressing Sandberg’s hopes for female graduates. The video has an accompanying tumblr, where women are invited to participate in the project and post their answers to Sandberg’s inquiry. Speckled through the video are some of Sandberg’s oft-repeated statements which still manage to remain striking: only 21 of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; only 18 per cent of our elected representatives are women. According to Sandberg, an inculcated fear of leadership is to blame for women holding back from success. “When little girls lead,” explains Sandberg in the video, “they’re called bossy. Over time, children internalize these messages.”

Following the recent popularity of a supposedly empowering video campaign which was, underneath it all, a clever marketing ploy (ahem, Dove Real Beauty Sketches) it seems easy at first to think of the If You Weren’t Afraid video as a well-crafted business move. But although Dove is a huge corporation, Sandberg is only one person, and one who has had to work her way to the top in a male-dominated field--a personal story which is bound to resonate with many young women. Like the Dove Beauty Sketches, If You Weren’t Afraid challenges internalized gender norms. But Sandberg encourages ambition and self-assurance in young women, instead of perpetuating the idea that girls should fret over their looks. Dove encourages women to understand how they are seen by others (beautiful), while Sandberg calls for women to formulate what it is they want for themselves (according to respondents, anything from being a professional salsa dancer to pissing people off).

On the campaign’s tumblr, Sandberg explains, “studies show that even after college, women are less ambitious than their male peers. They avoid leadership roles. They are afraid to speak up.” Yet research shows women are actually better leaders than men. In a 2011 study evaluating the performance of 7,280 men and women in leadership roles, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman from the Harvard Business Review found that women scored higher than men in 12 out of the 16 categories, including “takes initiative” and “communicates powerfully and prolifically.” Zenger and Folkman argue that it may well be that societal pressures push women to excel, as they strive to prove they can make it in a man’s world.

In her personal message on the Lean In website, Sandberg expressed her dream for a dissolution of gender norms. “A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe that this would be a better world.” Sandberg describes Lean In as “a sort of feminist manifesto,” while asking women to work within the patriarchal system rather than smash it. There’s definitely truth to Sandberg’s message that if we are to continue living in a man’s world, women need to buck up and get tough--and that starts with spending less time worrying whether others see us as “bossy” and getting over our fears.

Image: Getty Images