Sheryl Sandberg to Graduates: You Are the Hope for a More Equal Future

What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? – Lean In


By the time they graduate from college, more men than women see themselves as leaders. Lean In asked women to answer the question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Join the conversation:

Congratulations, graduates, on this exciting occasion!

I join so many others in celebrating and applauding the hard work and perseverance that earned you your degree. And since no one accomplishes anything all alone, we also congratulate the people who nurtured you along the way—family, friends, and faculty. They share in the pride and joy of your achievements.

If your graduating class is anything like mine, some of your classmates have already pinpointed a path to the future, while others may not even know where to begin. Still, no matter what route you choose personally, I am writing to appeal to you to take on a critically important cause that will improve the lives of all: building a more equal world.

A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes. I believe that this would be a better world. The laws of economics and studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve. And studies of home life tell us that families where housework and childcare are shared evenly have happier parents and better outcomes for their children.

Over the past four years, you probably haven’t given much thought to gender inequality. When I graduated from college in 1991—and yes, I realize this was the year that most of you were born—I never thought about it either. My classmates and I believed that the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s had done the hard work of achieving equal opportunity for women. Now all we had to do was seize those opportunities.

But more than 20 years later, we are nowhere near equality for women. In the November 2012 election, women won more congressional seats than ever before, bringing them up to a (non-whopping) 18 percent. A mere 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women and the percentage of women in executive roles in corporate America has barely budged over the past decade. The gap is even worse for women of color, who hold just 4 percent of top corporate jobs and 5 percent of congressional seats. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women’s voices are not heard equally.

The gender biases in our society have already started to affect the way you view yourselves. Millennial women are less likely than their male peers to characterize themselves as “self-confident” and “leaders.” This may be one of the reasons that at the top fifty colleges, despite women comprising more than half of the student population, less than a third of student government presidents are women.

These lowered expectations extend into the workplace. For example, female college students have lower pay expectations than their male peers. Just a few years out of college, more men than women aspire to reach managerial levels. And even before women enter the workforce, they are often worrying about balancing future careers and families.

This generation can make the difference. It won’t be easy. It begins by admitting that we have a problem and committing to solve it.

Women need to believe in themselves, raise their hands, sit at the table, take risks, and support each other. They need to overcome their fears. Men need to support women, too, encouraging female peers in the workplace and doing their share in their homes. If women lean in to their careers and men lean in to treating women as true equals, together, you can end these biases and break down both the external and internal barriers that hold women back.

Let’s keep talking about these issues. Let’s start encouraging women to lead in whatever field they choose. And let’s all—men and women–support women as they do it. You can turn the promise of equality into true equality.

You are the hope for a brighter future.

Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Join the conversation at and