Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg: Unconscious bias is hindering professional women, and more leaders need to start talking about it

Sheryl Sandberg
Current trainings on unconscious bias often fall short because they don’t push managers to have tough conversations on prejudice, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said. Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images
  • Insider spoke with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg for International Women’s Day.
  • She said leaders need to be more intentional about addressing the impacts of unconscious bias, specifically for women.
  • Sandberg created an interactive program for managers to talk about bias.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

For International Women’s Day, Sheryl Sandberg – COO of Facebook and founder of the gender equity nonprofit LeanIn – has a very specific message for leaders looking to elevate women.

“We all need to do better,” Sandberg told Insider.

There’s no denying the injustice between who’s able to climb the corporate ladder and who’s trapped on its lowest rung.

For every 100 men promoted into a managerial role between 2019 and 2020, only 85 women were promoted, according to 2020 research by McKinsey and LeanIn. That gap was even larger for women of color. Only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted.

One main factor holding women back is unconscious bias, Sandberg said, and more leaders need to have uncomfortable conversations about it.

Through and not around

Unconscious bias often manifests in microaggressions – which are characterized by unintentional expressions of racism – sexism, and other prejudices. A 2019 survey of some 1,000 workers by Glassdoor found that at least 60% of workers have experienced or witnessed this type of discrimination in the workplace.

“Saying ‘There’s bias.’ That doesn’t do it. That’s not enough. We have to be specific, even though that’s where the hard conversations come up,” the COO said.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many companies made unconscious bias training mandatory for employees and managers, diversity and inclusion experts told Insider. But often, those trainings are one-time presentations that aren’t interactive.

That type of training is insufficient, Sandberg said.

“People want to talk about bias, but they’re afraid to talk about what the actual biases are. They’re afraid to say things out loud,” she added.

These false biases include such stereotypes as men being smarter than women, labeling Black women as “bossy,” and perceiving Latinas as “emotional,” she said.

Sandberg’s nonprofit created an interactive program called “50 Ways to Fight Bias” to help managers have more of these conversations. Prompts from the interactive highlight the biases women, especially women of color, experience in the workplace.

Leaders from Amazon, Airbnb, PayPal, and Walmart have already participated in the program. Over 1,000 other companies are signed up.

According to a survey by LeanIn, 95% of participants said they are more committed to taking action when they see bias, and 96% of managers said they feel more equipped to discuss challenging bias with their teams.

“We’re trying to bring unconscious bias to life,” Sandberg said.