Remarks by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook
Barnard College Commencement
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
New York City
President Spar, distinguished members of the Board of Trustees, esteemed members of the faculty,
proud parents, squirming siblings, devoted friends, congratulations to all of you… and especially to the
magnificent Barnard graduating class of 2011! As of today, you are indelibly linked to Barnard’s long and
proud history as you become the 119th class to be welcomed into the company of educated women.
Looking out at this crowd fills me with great joy. In part, because it includes my college roommate
Caroline Weber who is a member of your faculty. But also because I work in Silicon Valley where I am
often the only female in the room. I like this ratio a lot. To the wonderful and supportive men who are
here today – perhaps you’re feeling a little outnumbered… a little self-conscious. Just take a deep
breath. The good news is there’s no line for the men’s room.
I graduated from college twenty years ago. Yes, as I am reminded every day given where I work, I am
old. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and my 27-year-old boss once asked me, “When do midlife
crises happen, when you are 30?” Yup, that was a hard day. I am old enough to know that most of our
lives are filled with days we don’t remember. Today is not one of them. You will almost certainly not
remember anything I say or perhaps even who your commencement speaker was… although for the
record, it’s SHERYL with an S. But you will remember what matters – how you feel as you take this next
step in your life.
Today is a day of celebration. A day to celebrate your accomplishments, the hard work that brought you
to this moment where you sit sweltering in a gown. Today is a day of thanks. A day to thank the people
who helped you get here – the people who nurtured you, taught you, cheered you on and dried your
tears. Today is a day of reflection. Because today marks the end of one era and the beginning of
As you leave Barnard, you take your place among the fortunate. Some of you arrived here from families
where education was emphasized and expected. Some of you had to overcome more obstacles to get
here and today, you earn the distinction of becoming the first member of your family to graduate from
college. What a wonderful achievement.
But no matter where you started, you are now among the most educated people in the world. You are
privileged in the most important sense of the word – you have almost boundless opportunity. With
great opportunity comes great responsibility. What will you do with the education you’ve worked so
hard to achieve? What will you do with the opportunities that lie before you? What needs to change in
the world and what part, if any, will you play in changing it?
Pulitzer Prize winners Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof visited this campus last year to discuss their
important and compelling book, Half the Sky. Some of you may have attended that presentation so you
already know the book lays out the central moral issue of our time. They assert that in the 19th century,
the central moral issue was slavery. In the 20th century, it was totalitarianism. And in the 21st century, it
is the oppression of women and girls around the globe, especially in Africa and Asia. The book is a call to
arms to provide women – women just like us except for the circumstances they were born into – with
basic human rights. To put an end to the extreme physical, psychological and political abuses that they
Compared to these women, we are fortunate. In America, as in other developed countries, we have
equal protection under the law. Still, the promise of equality is not the same as real equality. It is sad
but true – men still run the world. Of 190 heads of state, only 9 are women. Women hold 13 percent of
seats in parliament globally. In corporate America, women have topped out at about 15 percent of
corporate level jobs and board seats, numbers that have stagnated over the past 9 years. Of full
professors at universities in this country, only 24 percent are women.
I recognize that this is a vast improvement from 40 years ago. When my mother graduated college in
the ‘60s, she believed that she could choose from 2 professions – nursing or teaching. She raised me
and my sister to believe we could do anything that our brother could do. And we believed it.
But my generation, sadly, is not going to change the numbers at the top. Women became 50 percent of
the college graduates in 1981. Yet 30 years later, we have not come close to holding our fair share of
positions of power. This means when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us and our
world, our voices are not equally heard.
So we turn to you. You are the promise for a more equal world. You are our hope.
I truly believe that only when we have real equality in our governments, our companies, and our
universities, will we start to resolve the central moral issue of our time. We need women at all levels,
including the top, to create the critical mass necessary to change the dynamic… to reshape the
conversation… to make certain women’s voices are heard and heeded rather than overlooked and
So my hope for everyone here is that after you walk across this stage, after you get your diploma, even
after you will go out and celebrate HARD – you then will lean way in to your career. You will find
something you love doing and you will do it with gusto. Find the right career for you and go all the way
to the top.
So what advice can I give you to help you achieve this goal? First, I encourage you to think big. Studies
show that among the college-educated population, men are more professionally ambitious than
women. They start out more ambitious when they graduate from college and remain more ambitious at
every step along the career path. We cannot close the achievement gap until we close the ambition
gap. If all young women start thinking big – right here, right now – we can close the ambition gap
overnight. Leadership belongs to those who grab it. It starts with YOU.
The next step is you have to believe in yourself – perhaps more than you do now. Studies show that
women underestimate their own abilities compared to men. When surveyed on quantifiable
performance criteria like GPAs, men get theirs wrong slightly high and women get theirs wrong slightly
low. And men attribute their success to their own skills while women attribute their success to other
factors. Ask a woman to explain why she’s successful and she’ll credit working hard, good luck and help
from others. Ask a man the same question and he’ll say, – or at least think – "Dumb question. I’m
Women shortchange their own contributions from the very start, and this underestimation is expensive
for both you and others. Because when you underestimate yourself, you lessen the impact you can
So women need to take a page from men and own our success. I know from personal experience that
this is harder than it sounds. All along the way, I’ve had times – much of the time, really – where I felt
like I didn't deserve credit for my accomplishments. When I got into college, I thought about my parents
helping me with my application. I worked at the Treasury Department because I was fortunate enough
to take the right professor’s class and he took me with him to the Treasury department. Google? I
boarded a rocket ship and it lifted me up along with everyone else.
Even to this day, I have those moments. But I know that I have to make the adjustment. I need to
believe in myself enough to reach for the next opportunity. Because there’s a guy out there and he’s
sure he's "awesome" and can do it. So to all of you, please remember, you are awesome. And while it is
never a good idea to be boastful – no one likes that in men or women – believing inside that you can
contribute enough to really have an impact is necessary to achieving your potential.
You should also know that there are external forces out there holding you back from owning your
success. Studies have shown – and yes, I do like studies – that success and likeability are positively
correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. As men become more successful and
powerful, they are liked more by people of both genders. As women become more successful and
powerful, they are liked less. Consider the way people describe men and women in power. A powerful
man is “exacting” while a woman “nitpicks.” That same man is a “consensus-builder” while a woman is
I’ve experienced this first-hand. When I first joined Facebook, there was a local blog that devoted some
serious pixels to trashing me. Anonymous sources labeled me “a liar,” “two-faced,” “about to ruin
Facebook forever.” I cried some when I was alone. I lost sleep. Then I told myself it did not matter.
Then everyone else told me it did not matter – which only reminded me that they were reading it too.
I fantasized about all sorts of rejoinders, but in the end, my best response was to do my job and do it
well. When Facebook’s performance improved, the trash talk went away. Do I believe I was judged
more harshly because of my double X’s? Yes. And do I believe that this will happen again? Yes. And
I’ve told myself that when it does, I will not be upset about it. I am not sure that this is right. But I know
that I’ll get through it and the truth will come out in the end. I know how to keep my head down and
If you think big and own your success and lead, it will require sacrifice. You’ll have to work hard, not just
for yourself, but for the future of all women. In your personal lives, with your partners, this may impose
some cost. Men make far fewer tradeoffs between professional success and personal fulfillment.
Women bear the majority of the burden of children and household responsibilities. If a heterosexual
couple works fulltime, the average woman will do 2 times the amount of housework and 3 times the
amount of childcare as her husband. From my mother’s generation to mine, we have made more
progress on equality in the workplace than we have in the home, and the latter is hurting the former
So it’s a bit counter-intuitive, but the most important decision you will make concerning your career is to
choose a supportive life partner. If you can find someone who is willing to share the burdens – and joys
– of your home life, you will go farther. A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our
institutions would be a better place. I have a 3-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son and I am counting
on you to help evolve the world so that by the time they’re grown, they’ll both have more options. I
want my son to have the choice to contribute fully not just in the workforce, but at home. And I want
my daughter to have that same choice, and if she choses the workforce, to be liked for her
accomplishments. I can’t wait for the day when work-life balance is not just discussed at women’s
Of course, not everyone wants to jump into the workforce and rise to the top. Life brings many twists
and turns and each of us must forge her own path. I have deep respect and admiration for my friends
who chose the hard and important job of raising children. Or for hard-chargers who decide to charge
hard in a different direction, working part-time to accommodate new responsibilities. And I have deep
respect and admiration for my friends who decide to live more in the moment or pursue non-traditional
These are choices that you may make one day, but until that day, you should do all you can to make sure
you have real options to choose from. Because what I’ve seen in the past 20 years is that women don’t
make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of little decisions that over time
lead to their eventual exit. Maybe they choose a less interesting specialty in medicine that will allow
more flexibility down the road. Maybe it’s that 5th year at the law firm when a woman starts
questioning whether she even wants to shoot for partner because someday she hopes to have a family.
She might not even be in a relationship and yet she’s already worried about balancing work and home
life. So she stops looking for new opportunities, projects or promotions. She starts quietly leaning back,
often without even realizing she is doing so.
Everyone I know who has voluntarily gone back to work after having a child will tell you the same thing –
you will only do it if your job is truly compelling. If years earlier, you stopped challenging yourself, you
will feel bored and undervalued. And then you won’t return. Or if you do return, you will find it not
worth the sacrifices to stay. So my heartfelt message is: don’t leave before you leave. Don’t lean back,
lean in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the day you have to make a decision. That’s the only way
to ensure you even have a decision to make.
And what about the rat race in the first place? Is it really worthwhile? Or are you just buying into
someone else’s definition of success? Only you can make those decisions. But if you think it’s a rat race,
before you opt out entirely, consider then if you’ve picked the wrong job. Try again. And again. Try
until you find something that stirs your passion, a job that matters to you and matters to others. It’s a
luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a clear path to happiness.
At Facebook, we have a broad mission – to make the entire world more open and connected. One of
the most important things I have learned working with great entrepreneurs – like Mark at Facebook and
Larry Page and Sergey Brin before at Google – is that in order to make a real difference, you have to
start with real ambition. At Facebook, we work hard to create a culture where people are thinking big
all of the time. We have posters all over the office that reinforce this culture. One reads, “Fortune
favors the bold.” Another reads, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
This question echoes Barnard’s own unofficial motto, put forth by brilliant alumna Anna Quindlen, who
has declared that she “majored in unafraid.” Never let your fear overwhelm your desire. Let the
obstacles in your path be external not internal. Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what
you’re capable of if you don’t try. As you walk off this stage today, you start your adult life. Start out by
Like everyone here, I have great hopes for the members of this graduating class. I hope you find true
meaning, contentment and passion in your life. I hope you navigate the difficult times and come out
with greater strength and resolve. I hope you find whatever balance you seek with your eyes wide
open. And I hope that you – yes, you– have the ambition to run the world. Because the world needs
you to change it. Women all around the world are counting on you. I am counting on you.
And I know that’s a tremendous challenge and responsibility. A daunting task. But you can do it. You
can do it if you lean way in.
So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid?
And then go do it.
Congratulations, Class of Two-thousand-eleven!