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Sandberg: Speak up, believe in yourself, take risks

By Sheryl Sandberg, Special to CNN
March 18, 2013 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sheryl Sandberg: Men still rule the world, and we need to talk about gender issues
  • She says there are remarkable stories of women overcoming obstacles to success
  • Sandberg created organization to focus on helping women find paths to success
  • She anticipates day when half the homes are run by men and half the companies by women

Editor's note: Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, is the author of "Lean In." Watch the second part of Soledad O'Brien's interview with Sheryl Sandberg at 8 a.m. ET Tuesday on CNN.

(CNN) -- My hope in writing "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead" was to change the conversation from what women can't do to what we can.

We need a national conversation that examines the barriers that hold women back and prevent us from achieving true equality. Additionally and just as importantly, we need personal conversations among us all -- managers and employees, friends, colleagues, partners, parents and children -- where issues about gender are discussed openly.

The blunt truth is that men still run the world. Of today's 195 independent countries, only 17 are led by women. In the United States, where our founding creed promises liberty and justice for all, women constitute just 18% of our elected congressional officials.

Since the early 1980s, educational achievement has steadily increased for women, while leadership in the workplace has plateaued. A meager 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women hold about 14% of executive officer positions and 16% of board seats. The gap is worse for women of color, who hold just 4% of top corporate jobs, 3% of board seats and 5% of congressional seats.

Laura Bush: My girls help others

Even more distressing, the percentage of women at the top of corporate America has barely budged over the past decade. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women's voices are not heard equally.

How do we change this?

As I wrote in "Lean In," women are held back by many institutional barriers: sexism, discrimination, a lack of flexibility and a U.S. public policy that lags behind that of most developed nations. But women are also held back by stereotypes that persist and remain self-fulfilling.

By talking openly about the challenges that women face in the workplace and at home, we can work toward solutions together. We can't ignore the subject any longer. We need to talk and listen, debate and learn, evolve and take action.

Work, family and 'leaning in': 7 families trying to make it work

To help address these issues, I co-founded Leanin.org, a global community dedicated to encouraging women to lean in to their ambitions. In addition to providing educational videos (such as "Negotiation" and "Creating a Level Playing Field"), Leanin.org also allows women to come together and share stories of how they have been able to overcome obstacles to pursue a goal.

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Men, too, offer stories of how they mentored and supported female colleagues, friends and partners during key career moments. The stories are fascinating. Not every story will speak to everyone, but viewed collectively they illuminate and connect.

One of the most remarkable stories comes from Marie Tueller, who bravely and beautifully writes about how she found the strength to testify against her rapist in court even though he had threatened her life and the life of her child. This courageous testimony put him in jail for 31 years without possibility of parole.

Another story that I've read over and over comes from Kelly Wickham, an assistant principal in Springfield, Illinois. Pregnant at 15, Kelly persevered to graduate from college, become a teacher, earn a master's degree and take on greater and greater responsibilities at work. As she says, "In my second year of [graduate] classes, a professor asked why I wanted to become a principal. I responded that leadership found me, and I wasn't going to shy away from it any longer."

Former first lady Laura Bush opens up about her deep concern for children after the tragedy of 9/11 and her work to comfort their fears. Photographer Me Ra Koh found that photography helped heal her pain after a miscarriage. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii talks about how her mother worked two jobs to support her children. As the senator explains, "I was not born into wealth, power or political legacy, and my path to the Senate was improbable as any."

These stories are about women finding their voice and their strength. And while the situations vary wildly among the Lean In stories, a few messages resonate throughout: Speak up. Believe in yourself. Take risks.

If your dream is to be a firefighter and you're in law school, you can make it happen, as Brenda Berkman describes in her inspiring story. It took her five years and a major lawsuit that challenged the New York City Fire Department's discriminatory hiring practices to do it, but she made her dream come true.

Not all the stories are about leaning in. As I discuss in my book, there are times when it makes sense for us to lean back.

Musician Nancy Kuo writes about working as hard as she could, piling on gig after gig, until she decided to track down a father she never knew. The search ended up changing her life: "I'm not moving as fast anymore, and have found by slowing down, I actually have time to work on my most important relationship -- the one I have with myself."

These stories are full of strong emotions. I urge you to go to the site and find the ones that resonate with you.

Do you fear public speaking? You might be interested to know that you share that fear with Sandra Jurado, the 22-year-old national youth president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. And, surprisingly, with actress Reese Witherspoon.

Ursula Burns, chair and CEO of Xerox, shares a powerful story about her experience.

She writes, "I was raised by a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Many people told me I had three strikes against me: I was black. I was a girl. And I was poor. Mom didn't see it that way. She constantly reminded me that where I was didn't define who I was."

We can each define ambition and progress for ourselves. The goal is to work toward a world where expectations are not set by the stereotypes that hold us back, but by our personal passion, talents and interests.

I look forward to the day when half our homes are run by men and half our companies and institutions are run by women. When that happens, it won't just mean happier women and families; it will mean more successful businesses and better lives for us all.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinion expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sheryl Sandberg.

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