Sheryl Sandberg Talks Workplace Sexism in 'New York Times' Op-Ed

How open are you to conversations about sexism in the workplace? That a question that's most important when asked of managers, executives, and CEOs, the real power players within a corporate structure whose implicit biases can have an outsized impact on the women working among them. If you're looking for a neat, tidy commentary on just this issue, you should check out The New York TimesFacebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talked workplace sexism in an op-ed Saturday, along with Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a detailed, well-written piece which highlights just a few of the ways that common, sexist misconceptions about women in the workplace can reinforce themselves over time.

Sandberg has long been an ardent voice in favor of heightened consciousness of sexism in the workplace, and in 2013 she published Lean In , a book dedicated to laying out ways for women to be more successful and less reticent in corporate power structures. Writing for the Times Saturday, Sandberg and Grant's feature begins with a little riddle which you may or may not have heard of before. I had, myself, as it's sometimes used to start conversations about implicit sexism. Which is exactly how they use it, right at the top — can you figure it out without reading ahead for the answer? Give it a try.

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father is killed and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.”
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Got it? Any luck? It's possible that the answer struck you simply enough, but if it didn't, don't beat yourself up about it — it's reflective of the gendered stereotypes we've all grown up with, and recognizing them is the first step to overcoming them. The solution to that little teaser above is that the surgeon is the boy's mother, not his father. But many people are so hardwired to picture a very particular image when they hear the word "surgeon" — something like a gray haired, spectacled old man — that the blindingly obvious answer goes overlooked.

It's those types of gender-based stereotypes and assumptions that Sandberg and Grant are railing against, but with some interesting and canny stipulations. Namely, that how we present the reality of gender and sex-based workplace bias to managers and leaders can color the kind of reaction it elicits.

... Professors Duguid and Thomas-Hunt told managers that stereotypes were common or rare. Then, they asked managers to read a transcript from a job interview of a candidate described as either female or male. At the end of the interview, the candidate asked for higher compensation and a nonstandard bonus. When the managers read that many people held stereotypes, they were 28 percent less interested in hiring the female candidate. They also judged her as 27 percent less likable. The same information did not alter their judgments of male candidates.

Sandberg and Grant's explanation? That it isn't enough just to raise awareness of this sort of stuff — it needs to be paired with a firm communication that such discrimination is "undesirable and unacceptable."

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Do yourself a favor and check out the full op-ed, it's well worth your time. And hats off to Sandberg for continuing to champion this cause — after all, we live in a corporate reality in which a mere 26 Fortune 500 companies are lead by women.

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