Sheryl Sandberg Sounds Off on Bias in the Workplace

Bias in the workplace doesn’t actually start in the workplace. Instead, it takes root in childhood, with gendered toys, activities and presumptive traits.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg tested this idea with the audience at the closing general session of the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual convention Wednesday in Chicago, where she was interviewed by organizational psychologist and Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant. Sandberg asked the women in the audience to raise their hands if they’d been called “bossy” when they were children–thousands of hands shot up. She posed the same question to the men, with little response. She then asked women if they’d been called “aggressive” in the workplace, again with an overwhelming response compared to men.

“Our expectations are so gendered that when a little girl leads, we’re surprised and tell her not to. We’re systematically holding women back,” Sandberg said. “There’s an answer: The next time you hear someone call a little girl ‘bossy’ at the playground, walk up to her parents and say, ‘That little girl isn’t bossy, she has executive-leadership skills.’ ”

That simple practice won’t stamp out inequality in future workplaces, Sandberg acknowledged. That’s where HR should come in.

For sustainable change, she said, HR leaders need to get a handle on the causes of, red flags associated with and long-term impacts of bias in the workplace.

A range of workplace studies have all come to the same conclusion about hiring: White men are the most likely to get job interviews and offers.  

“If there are two resumes, one from a man and one from a woman, the resume from the man will get more callbacks. And if there are two resumes, one with a ‘white’-sounding name and one with a ‘black’-sounding name, the ‘white’ resume will get 50-percent more callbacks,” she said. Another dimension also impacts hiring: parenthood. If you put that term “PTA” on a resume, Sandberg added, studies have shown the candidate gets 80-percent fewer callbacks than those without that identifying factor. Women of color who are raising children then are facing the most serious disparities, she noted.

Apart from hiring, gendered expectations continue to shape performance expectations and pay. Research has shown that women and men remember their own performance slightly differently than reality–women are more likely to recall their GPA slightly lower than it was, and men the opposite–as do those around them, Sandberg said. They also ascribe success to different factors: Women’s achievements are often attributed to hard work, help from others and luck, while men’s are connected to their skills.

“Women, the next time something good happens to you and you’re about to say, ‘Oh, I got lucky,’ don’t say that,” Sandberg told the audience, noting it’s important for everyone in an organization to be reflective about their own experiences, and to acknowledge their own biases. “To change a bias, we have to say what it is.”

HR needs to take the lead on systematic checks for bias, she added, especially in the areas of performance ratings, promotions and pay. Advanced data analytics and evolving AI can assist in such efforts, she added.

Training is another component to reducing the impacts of bias. Facebook has developed internal bias training that it published as a guide for other organizations. Encouraging frank conversation about bias in the workplace is key, as is acknowledging that growth won’t happen overnight, Sandberg said.

“If [men] don’t get it perfectly right, we have to help them,” she said to the female attendees. “We need to make it OK for people to talk about the challenges they have–no matter who they are–because then you’re beginning to bring everyone into the conversation.”

That’s especially salient as the #MeToo movement continues to gain momentum. Sandberg cited research that, since the movement–which has encouraged victims of sexual harassment, including in the workplace, to share their stories–saw a resurgence in the past few months, male managers are much more likely than in the past to refrain from having a one-on-one meeting or dinner with a female employee, and especially hesitant to travel with women at the company. Such practices are holding women back from mentoring opportunities, she added.

Sandberg’s advice for men? If you don’t know how to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman, then don’t do it. Opt for a group lunch instead, she said.

Women can take the reins on their own mentoring opportunities, she noted. Sandberg’s nonprofit, the Lean In Foundation, encourages female employees to start or join Lean In Circles–small groups of women often in the same career path or geographical area who gather in person or virtually for regular support and networking. There are currently 37,000 Lean In Circles operating in 162 countries around the world, with 85 percent of members saying their interaction with the other members has made a positive change on their lives.

The open conversations that are needed about bias should be part of a larger organizational approach to communication, Sandberg added.

Performance feedback needs to be continuous and reciprocal throughout all levels. “If you’re doing it all the time, it shouldn’t be a big deal,” she noted. The same approach is needed for HR leaders who are confronting tough, personal issues, such as medical treatments or grief, said Sandberg, who used the death of her husband in 2015 as an example.

“People are afraid to bring it up because they say they don’t want to remind you–it’s not like I’m going to say, ‘Oh it’s three years later, I forgot.’ When you’re afraid to bring these things up, you’re not protecting people, you’re isolating them.”

While that personal touch is important, HR leaders also need to advocate for better policies–such as paid family leave and bereavement leave–that acknowledge the totality of experiences employees bring to work, and can boost satisfaction and engagement.

“This room, you guys can go back and argue for a lot of things,” Sandberg said.


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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at