Facebook’s Sandberg Details Slow Progress of Women at Top

Facebook road show video
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook Inc.’s chief operating officer, said the past decade has seen little or no gain for women in top government or executive positions.

“Women in the U.S. became 50 percent of college graduates in 1981,” Sandberg, 42, said at the Women in the World conference in New York. “In every industry, women have steadily made progress in the past 30 years -- except at the top, where, essentially, over the last 10 years, there hasn’t been progress.”

Sandberg has called gender inequality “this generation’s central moral problem,” citing the disparate amount of women with power both globally and in the U.S. The number of Fortune 500 companies run by women fell to a dozen last year from 15 in 2010, according to the magazine’s rankings. In the U.S Congress, women hold just 89, or 17 percent, of 535 voting seats, data from the Congressional Research Service show.

Sandberg led a panel yesterday at the conference hosted by Newsweek and the Daily Beast that included Jill Abramson, 57, who replaced Bill Keller as the New York Times’ executive editor in September, and Gloria Steinem, the 77-year-old activist who spurred the contemporary women’s rights movement when she started Ms. Magazine 40 years ago. Cheryl Mills, counselor and chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was also on the panel.

Abramson, the first female editor of the Times in its 160-year history, said she has been “obsessing” over how to ensure that young female editors or copy editors at the newspaper “get known.” Almost 40 percent of senior editors and managers in the newsroom are women, she said.

‘Sometimes Stalled Progress’

“Things have certainly changed, but it’s been progress -- and not constant, and sometimes stalled progress,” Abramson said about women advancing to leadership roles.

Coca-Cola Co. Chief Executive Officer Muhtar Kent created a Women’s Leadership Council at the Atlanta-based company that advises senior management “on how to hire more women, how to mentor more women, develop them and promote them and retain them,” he said in a separate session at the conference today. The company also started an initiative to empower five million women outside the company by 2020, he said.

The CEO, who’s led the world’s largest soft-drink maker since July 2008, said three years ago, there was “a huge mismatch” between the amount of women at the company and the as much as 70 percent of women who buy Coca-Cola products.

“Women are so important in their communities in which they serve, but we don’t have the same numbers we should have in the company, so that’s why we started working on this,” he said.

Periods of Resistance

Steinem, who said men still don’t have a lot of experience seeing women in power, said change will come when organizations recognize that parenting is a shared responsibility between mothers and fathers.

“We are, among modern democracies, the worst in the world for making it work for parents,” Steinem said. “We’re not just talking about integrating things the way they are, we’re talking about transforming them. And because women are half the population, we have to transform them in order to live full human lives.”

Steinem is the subject of an HBO documentary released in August, “Gloria: In Her Own Words,” and is working on a book about her more than 30 years as a feminist organizer, “Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered.”

In social-justice movements, “there are two periods of resistance, one is at the beginning, when nobody is allowed in, and the second is when you reach critical mass, and the group previously in power begins to imagine they’re not just including you as an employee, but you might be their boss,” she said.

Compensation Levels

Women make up 19.3 percent of national legislative seats worldwide and account for 42.1 percent of spots in the legislatures of Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Norway, according to the Congressional Research Service report. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the U.S. 69th globally for legislative female representation.

Newsweek Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown, who organized the third annual conference, said at the event that Sandberg is “an aggressive advocate” for female executives in Silicon Valley.

Facebook Valuation

Sandberg is the best-paid senior executive of Menlo Park, California-based Facebook, receiving $30.9 million in compensation last year. She may own up to 1.7 percent of the company after its initial public offering this year, which may be the largest for an Internet company on record. At the top end of the valuation range expected for the offering, her stake may be worth $1.7 billion.

She was one of six co-chairs of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this year, where she led a panel on “Women as the Way Forward.” A mother of two, she’s also a director on the boards of Walt Disney Co. and Starbucks Corp.

While Sandberg is a prominent advocate of gender equality, giving a TED talk on the subject in 2010 and making it the focal point of her commencement speech at Barnard College last year, the social-media company where she is the public face has a seven-member, all-male board.

Just 11.3 percent of the Fortune 500 had male-only boards last year, according to Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit that researches women and business issues.

A Catalyst survey of Fortune 500 companies found that those with three or more female directors outperformed those with fewer between 2005 and 2009, achieving on average 43 percent better returns on equity.

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