Sheryl Sandberg’s Inspiring Speech At Harvard Business School


I’ve cried at work.  I’ve told people I’ve cried at work.  And it’s been reported in the press that ‘Sheryl Sandberg cried on Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulder’, which is not exactly what happened.  I talk about my hopes and fears and ask people about theirs.  I try to be myself – honest about my strengths and weaknesses – and I encourage others to do the same.  It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the very same time.

I recently started speaking up about the challenges women face in the workforce, something I only had the courage to do in the last few years.  Before this, I did my career like everyone else does it.  I never told anyone I was a girl.  Don’t tell.  I left the lights on when I went home to do something for my kids . I locked my office door and pumped milk for my babies while I was on conference calls.  People would ask, “what’s that sound?”  I would say, “What sound?”   “I hear a beep.”  “Oh, there’s a fire truck outside my office.”

But the lack of progress over the past decade has convinced me we need to start talking about this. I graduated from HBS in 1995 and I thought it was completely clear that by the time someone from my year was invited to speak at this podium, we would have achieved equality in the workforce.  But women at the top — C-level jobs — are stuck at 15-16 percent and have not moved in a decade. Not even close to 50% and no longer growing.  We need to acknowledge openly that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership.  The promise of equality is not equality.  We need to start talking about this.


We need to start talking about how women underestimate their abilities compared to men and how for women, but not men, success and likeability are negatively correlated.  That means that as a woman is more successful in your workplaces, she will be less liked.  This means that women need a different form of management and mentorship, a different form of sponsorship and encouragement than men.

There aren’t enough senior women out there to do it, so it falls upon the men who are graduating today just as much or more as the women, not just to talk about gender but to help these women succeed.  When they hear a woman is really great at her job but not liked, take a deep breath and ask why.

We need to start talking openly about the flexibility all of us need to have both a job and a life.  A couple of weeks ago in an interview I said that I leave the office at 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with my children.  I was shocked at the press coverage.  One of my friends said I couldn’t get more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax.  This showed me this is an unresolved issue for all of us, men and women alike.  Otherwise, everyone would not write so much about it.


And maybe, most importantly, we need to start talking about how fewer women than men, even from places like HBS, even likely in this class, aspire to the very top jobs.  We will not close the leadership gap until we close the professional ambition gap.  We need more women not just to sit at the table, but as President Obama said a few weeks ago at Barnard, to take their rightful seats at the head of the table.

One of the reasons I was so excited to be here today is that this is the 50th anniversary of letting women into this school.  Dean Noria, who is so passionate about getting more women into leadership positions, told me that he wanted me to speak this year for that reason.

I met a woman from that first class once.  She told me that when they first came in, they took a men’s room and converted it to a woman’s room.  But they left the urinals in. She thought the message was clear – ‘we are not sure this whole woman thing is going to work out and if not, we don’t want to have to reinstall the urinals.’  The urinals are long gone.  Let’s make sure that no one ever misses them.


As you and your classmates spread out across the globe and walk across this stage tomorrow, I wish for you four things:

First, keep in touch via Facebook.  This is critical to your future success!  And since we’re public now, why you are there, click on an ad or two.

Two, that you make the effort to speak as well as seek the truth.

Three, that you remain true to and open about your authentic self.

And four, that your generation accomplishes what mine has failed to do.  Give us a world where half our homes are run by men and half our institutions are run by women.  I’m pretty sure that would be a better world.

I join everyone here in offering my most sincere congratulations to the HBS Class of 2012. Give yourselves a huge round of applause.


  • Lao Tzu

    Many people care more about making money than being remembered. Why do you make the assumptions that Sheryl cares about being remembered?

  • JustSaying

    Three years later, her husband is no more with us.

  • radical?

    Sheryl Sheryl Sheryl. You have two children. Your husband works. I’m sure you both work very very hard at your jobs. Perhaps even 80 hours a week at times.

    Who’s caring for your children? Are your children getting the nurturing they need from both of you? Do you know the side effect of children without nurturing parents? Assuming you put them in a day care, have you seen the low quality in day cares and after school programs?

    How much love and attention/nurturing did your parents give you? Did that help you get to where you both are today? Are you giving the same amount of love to your children?

    Now, that’s all about you. You both are motivated and smart. Smarter than the average bear. Do you really think that average America can do what I said above? Aren’t the average couple stressed to breaking points already? Aren’t divorces at all time record highs? I wonder how long your marriage will survive. I’ll check back on this in 5 years.

    Why are you pushing your viewpoints on women. Why is our nation becoming a nation of wimps who cry ‘I’m a VICTIM’ at every moment of their lives? Why are you Sheryl telling women to cry victim. Are victims a lower more cowering species anyway? So in the end aren’t you telling the ‘not so smarter than the average bear’ women in America to cry victim and get favoritism? Is that how you want women to gain an advantage? Favoritism? Is that how you got to where you are today?

    AAAWWW poor Sheryl, we better hire her or else she’ll litigate.

  • MS

    what a load of crap

  • Smi_josepha

    Awesome speech.  The bit about honesty is so true.  I regret not telling my previous company CEO the things that he needed to hear.

  • Neal Gorenflo

    Sandberg’s thought is similar to an idea in Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis that careers should be lattices not ladders.  But the dominant theme of the book is that grads should forget the traditional idea of jobs / careers altogether and take direct control of their economic destiny through institutions and practices that democratize economic life (open source software, open hardware, cooperatives, credit unions, public banks, participatory budgeting, coworking, hackerspaces, car sharing, etc.).

    I have to agree with Mike below, Sandberg is the wrong person to model.  She, or more accurately Facebook, symbolizes everything that’s wrong with our world.  Facebook’s Zuckerberg is lionized for exploiting the most sacred of things, human relationships.

    Why not have Linus Torvalds instead?  He’s more accomplished and more representative of what’s needed.

  • Dr Bhaskar Das

    Very inspiring speech of Ms Sandberg. i endorse her reference to need for gender neutrality in corporate sector. if it’s not addressed soon we shall fail to leverage a major chunk of the available human talent pool. 

  • This is conventionally faux-provocative neo-establishmentspeak to a pre-brainwashed audience. Pleasantly naughty clichés to hear, of course, but leaves one mighty hungry. Ms. S is so evidently capable of better, and will need to challenge herself way beyond this if she’s going to be remembered as anything more than a lucky rider on the right rocket.

  • Guest

    Much of the speech was great. I especially liked the parts about using simple language, rocket ship careers, and getting overwhelmed with PowerPoint. But, I don’t agree with Ms. Sandberg’s vision of  a better world: “And four, most deeply, that your generation accomplish what mine has
    failed to do. Give us a world where half our homes are run by men and
    half our institutions are run by women. I’m pretty sure that would be a
    better world.” I don’t think that would necessarily result in a better world. A better world is one in which people achieve what they strive for – whether that is home maker or executive, and whether that results in a 50/50 split or not. Ms. Sandberg also said that women are better off marrying women (regardless of whether or not they are even attracted to women) unless they marry the right man. Blanket, provocative statements like these discredit Ms. Sandberg and detract from an otherwise strong speech.

  • CLG123

    My hope would be that Ms. Sandberg will “walk the talk” in terms of making Facebook a leader in providing compelling, flexible career options for women.  She gave a speech several months ago in which she implied that it’s women’s fault that they are not “taking their place at the table” or something like that. In this more recent speech, she at least seems to have softened that line a bit  (as it’s a bit more difficult for the rest of us to grab a seat at the table when we don’t have Larry Summers as a personal career concierge). The reality for the rest of us is that most companies look down on women who have families (yes, even women with tippity-top MBAs), and/or fail to provide flexible opportunities that allow them to combine their work and family aspirations. 
    Now, if only a large, recently-IPOed company with plenty of cash in the bank could take the lead here in, say, allowing for things like job-sharing, compelling part-time & remote work, etc…..

  • Great to read and even greater to feel the things..

  • yay

  • guest

    … one ..

  • Community

    The number used word in the speech is “I” … sad state of affairs.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks Misiek. Just fixed the spelling of Lori’s name.

  • Misiek

    John – thanks for transcribing it. I believe that Laurie you are referring to is Lori Goler.

  • prasanna sabat

    Excellent interview!!!

  • JohnAByrne

    Unfortunately, there is no video. Harvard Business School did not tape or stream the event.

  • Prashanthidgunji

    Do you have the video of this speech, it is inspiring

  • L.

    Dear John….thank you for your transcribed post of Ms. Sandberg’s speech today. I am truly grateful. Onward we shall press. L.