Roundtable: Facebook directors on Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon
(From left) Orna Holland and Gail Power of Facebook with Ann O'Dea, Silicon Republic

Roundtable: Facebook directors on Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon

11 May 2013

With so much dialogue generated around Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Ann O’Dea caught up with two of Facebook’s most senior directors in Europe to get their views on the Lean In phenomenon.

When I sit down to discuss Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, with two of Facebook’s most senior directors on this side of the Atlantic (both women), it quickly becomes clear that gender has not really been on their radars as they rose up the ranks in Microsoft, Google and finally Facebook – both women have had a not dissimilar career path, having worked together at all three tech giants.

Orna Holland is director, EMEA staffing, responsible for sourcing talent from engineering to sales for Facebook across the Europe Middle East Africa region. Having joined Facebook from Google back in December 2009, she has been at the helm during a growth period that saw staffing in Dublin rise to 400, as well as the opening of the social network’s first non-US engineering office in London.

Gail Power is director, Global Sales Services, for Facebook, having moved from Google a little earlier in August 2009. With a track record of project management and managing and scaling diverse teams, stints at Barclays Bank and Accenture in the UK preceded her move over to the tech industry.

Both women are based in Facebook’s Dublin HQ.

Not unlike their COO, Holland and Power are married with young children, something that has clearly not been an impediment to their careers, nor a dampener on their obvious ambition and drive. They have met Sandberg several times – first when she interviewed Power for her role in Google back in 2004, and Holland for her job in Facebook in 2009.

Role models for girls

Before we get into the book, we chat about the general landscape and the much-discussed dearth of young girls taking up technology and science-based subjects in school and university. Both are optimistic about changing perceptions among young people that are today making the tech industry a ‘sexier’ proposition.

Orna Holland: I think these days people see a job where you can travel the world. There are not enough engineers, so you can work at really progressive organisations now. I would see it as becoming the golden egg for many young people.

Gail Power: Yeah, people like Mark Zuckerberg are amazing role models, especially because he started so young and, of course, Sheryl Sandberg herself and Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo!). I think it’s like geek chic, right? Being an accountant or lawyer, that’s the dull stuff now.

Holland: If people had asked us when we were graduating college what we wanted to be, we could never have said we wanted to work at Facebook, because nothing like that ever existed, and if we’ve learned anything from our career paths, it’s that the rate of change happens so dramatically. It’s important we ensure our kids have open minds about their careers.

You see the kids now. I remember we had a computer in primary school, and there was one computer in this office. People used to come in and kind of stare (laughs) at it in awe, and every so often you’d be allowed touch it. Now my four-and-a-half-year-old can put on the music system in our house, and pick the songs she likes on the iPad. It’s a completely different time.

Sandberg as a role model?

While Power and Holland clearly look up to Sandberg as a role model, they say that they wouldn’t have particularly remarked on her gender over the years.

Holland: I didn’t ever really think about what gender she was. It never really had any impact on how I saw her. I just remember finding her extremely impressive, and I probably did think ‘good for her. She’s nailing it’.

Power: She’s just so good at her job. That’s what is really impressive, not whether she’s male or female. It’s more like ‘wow, she’s just so amazing’, whether it’s at a one-to-one interview, or in a room with 100 of us.

The Lean In movement

So were they surprised when Sandberg began to raise her head above the parapet, give talks on the gender gap and, ultimately, publish the Lean In book?

Power: If I’m totally honest, at the start I was a bit sceptical. I think I hadn’t quite got into the mindset that it needed to be done. I think for me it was partly because I’m in a quite senior position so it’s like (laughs) ‘what, there’s a problem?’ Just learning more about it and opening my eyes made me take a very different stance in terms of things like CWIT (Connecting Women in Technology). I had always been involved, but it was something I didn’t put a lot of my energy into, whereas now I chase Orna all the time about it. It has definitely changed my opinion. If it has that impact on everybody else, then it will make a difference.

Holland: When it comes to the book, the numbers and the stats for me were pretty frightening. (Power nods). In this site here in Dublin there’s me and Gail and Emer Donaghy and Sonya Flynn – all female and all directors – and overall there’s a ratio of about 50-50, so you kind of think ‘we’re rocking along nicely’. But when you’re handed the data you think ‘OK, my perception is incorrect. Just because I’m in a good place doesn’t mean that’s happening globally, or indeed through the rest of Ireland’. That was an eye opener for me, because I guess I had thought everything was A-OK.

Power: And for me it wasn’t even just the stats, it was the trends – the fact that it has plateaued. I hadn’t realised that at all. That was the stat that made me sit up.

And I love Sheryl’s approach that this is not just aimed at women, it’s aimed at men, and that she’s really proactive about getting anybody involved. It doesn’t feel so much like a women’s rights issue as one of ‘we have to change the world together’.

Holland: I guess what also surprised me was that somebody at Sheryl’s level would do this. I mean, with what she’s accomplished in her career, what is the value add for her to stand up and write this book? She didn’t need to do it. She did it for a good reason. That to me was a real ‘aha’ moment. I thought, ‘good for you’. That really impressed me.

Reactions and reality checks

While there was huge praise for the book, it is well documented that – perhaps predictably when it comes to the complex area of gender politics – it also drew its share of naysayers and critics.

Power: Yeah, I was surprised by the venom behind some of the criticism. My first gut reaction was to feel really defensive toward her, but then you take a step back and you think, ‘well, it’s good that people feel so passionate about this topic’, and at least the conversation is being bought to the fore. But yeah, some of the more personal attacks surprised me. I guess that’s what happens when you put yourself out there. But it was great that it got to No 1 on the best-seller lists so quickly. It shows that there is great interest and enthusiasm in having the conversation.

‘Sit at the table’

In the book, Sandberg encourages women to step forward, and she posits that women are often the ones who hold themselves back. In one chapter, in particular, she also cautions women going on maternity leave, “don’t leave before you leave”. I ask both women if they have had any experience of either.

Holland: About 90pc of females I grew up with went to college. I’d say about 85pc of them don’t work anymore – they all have children, some two or three. It’s definitely something I’ve seen on that side of my life. Yet, here at Facebook, and even when I was at Microsoft and Google, I’d say 80pc have come back.

Power: I’m not sure they’ve all come back and been so ambitious, though.

Holland: No, definitely not as ambitious.

Power: What I used to see at Microsoft was amazing people I was competing with go out on maternity leave, then come back and say, ‘I’m not going to go for the high-profile project, because I want to go home at 4’clock’. In Accenture, too, people would say, ‘I never want to make partner because I want a family life’. So yes, I have seen people self-select out. Because it’s a decision you make, right? You sacrifice your family to some extent.

And have they had the experience of women checking out “before they leave”, as described in Lean In? They both nod immediately.

Holland: Yes, I have seen women who work on the team, and when they’re pregnant they’ve checked out before they’ve even walked out the door.

Power: Or people we’ve approached in the past saying, ‘oh no, we’ve just got married, and we’re thinking of having kids’. Like, really? That would stop you moving jobs? I remember I started at Facebook just after I got married and so many people were asking, ‘are you crazy? Do you not want a family?’ I just didn’t equate the two as being part of the same conversation. That was funny to me. This isn’t the 1950s, after all.

Holland: Yes, I totally agree. Mind you, it is difficult when they come back. It does feel still like a lot of the childcare responsibility burden falls on women. I feel like 90pc of the time it sits with the woman of the couple to organise the logistics of the sick baby or being let down by the child minder.

Having it all?

In another chapter, Sandberg describes the coining of the phrase ‘having it all’ as “perhaps the greatest trap ever set for women”. I ask them what they think of this thesis.

Holland: I actually believe you can have it all – once you forgive yourself the guilt. I think the biggest stumbling block is yourself. That was my experience. Once I got over my guilt of not being there every day, not putting them to bed every night, I said ‘OK, so I’m here four days a week I can absolutely nail it. (Holland is based in Dublin four days a week, while her home is in Dunmore East). I can do what I have to do’. But at the weekends when I’m at home, I’m with my kids. I won’t go out on a Saturday night, I’ll stay in or we’ll go out for pizza or we’ll have people over.

Women ask more questions than men do, in my experience. I can’t tell you the number of times a woman has said to me, ‘Do you not miss the children, oh that must be so hard?’ It’s asking a question in a nice manner but there’s so much underlying negativity to it.

Power: I always think the grass is greener, as well. Because I sometimes think it might be nice to be a stay-at-home mom, and then I do it for a day and I’m like, ‘oh God get me back to the professionals’. I’d probably be bored stiff if I was home all the time and it would ultimately not be good for my son. I think it’s a balance. At Facebook, we’re given a lot of freedom to make sure we get that balance, but you’re always trading something off.

I think Sheryl standing up and saying ‘I leave work at 5.30 every day to be home’ helps. I leave early on a Monday and don’t take calls on a Monday night because that’s my time with my son. But I do my work and I do it incredibly well, so why wouldn’t I go home early on a Monday? In any company, if you work hard and you do a good job you should be able to balance it. If you don’t, well then, people are going to ask questions.

Make your partner a real partner

It brings us neatly to Sandberg’s assertions in the book on the importance of having a ‘real partner’ in life.

Power: I couldn’t do what I do without my husband. We don’t do 50-50. It’s more like 70-30 – and he does the 70pc. Some weeks it’s 100pc. He has given up a lot to let me have my career, so I feel blessed all the time.

Holland: Well, even logistically, my husband has the kids four days a week and I’m only there three days, so we parent together at the weekends. So I’d say he does 75 to 80pc. He’s more flexible because he runs his own business, and we do have help. We couldn’t do it otherwise.

Lean In: conclusions

Finally I ask them if they believe it is a positive thing that Sandberg wrote this book?

Power: It’s a brilliant thing. The very fact that we’re having this conversation, the chances are that it’s going to raise awareness – about not only the decisions that corporations are making, but that women are making. I think it’s so important for our kids and for the next generation.

Holland: Gail and I have heard Sheryl speak for years, and we would have heard a lot of these stories. I feel like I have been so fortunate to know her through my career. The fact that is now available to the world is just great. Plus it’s good to see women in positions like that take on a challenge. I have two daughters, and hopefully when they grow up they’ll look at me and think, ‘that’s what my mom did. I can do anything’. So I think the book is awesome.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead has been published by WH Allen. The Lean In community is also online.

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths

Ann O’Dea
By Ann O’Dea

Ann O’Dea is CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic, an online source of science and technology news since 2001. She was also the founder and curator of Inspirefest, a unique international sci-tech event that aimed to disrupt the traditionally homogenous tech conference calendar. Today, that event has evolved into Future Human to showcase the leaders building the products and services for a new tomorrow. Ann is a fellow of the Irish Computer Society and the Institute of Art, Design & Technology. She received a Net Visionary award from the Irish Internet Association in 2015 for her work on ensuring the visibility of women role models in her industry, and was named Media Woman of the Year at the 2014 Irish Tatler Women of the Year Awards. In 2015, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Irish Internet Association’s Hall of Fame. Ann sits on the advisory board of TeenTurn, which provides teenage girls with experience in STEM.

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