Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg: HR Can Find Biases and Change Them

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie June 20, 2018

​Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg speaks at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

CHICAGO—Providing paid parental leave and more-generous bereavement leave, closing the gender pay gap, and moving women into C-suite positions were among the issues that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg discussed Wednesday during the closing general session at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition.

During an onstage Q&A interview with psychologist Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Sandberg said it's critical for HR, managers and employees at companies to talk openly about the biases that are preventing women—especially women of color—from having the same opportunities as men to land good jobs and to be paid the same as men for the same work.

"We have to understand it's not equal for women, it is not equal for women of color, and that means it's particularly unequal for women of color," said Sandberg, who is author of the best-selling book, Lean In.

Pay and Position Disparity

"If you take two resumes and one has a woman's name and one has a man's name, the [latter] will get more callbacks and more interviews," she said. The same goes, she said, for resumes with "white-sounding" names and "black-sounding" names; the former get far more interviews.

She noted that something similar happens when a woman reveals on a resume that she's a mother.

"If you take two resumes that are identical and you put the word 'PTA' on [one]—Parent Teacher Association—that resume is worth 80 percent fewer callbacks," she said.

When women and men succeed, she said, managers at work—and even the women and men themselves—ascribe that success to different things: People think a woman's success is due to her hard work, help from others and good luck; they think a man's success is because of his skills.

That bias matters, Sandberg said, because a manager is less likely to promote someone he believes succeeded because of "luck" than he is to promote someone he believes excelled because of "skills."

"Next time something good happens to you and you're about to say, 'Oh, I just got lucky,' don't say that," Sandberg advised. "And that's why your [HR] profession is so important, because we can systematically find these biases, and systematically acknowledge them, and systemically change them."

SHRM supports equal pay for equal work and believes that any improper pay disparities should be promptly addressed, according to a SHRM policy statement. "SHRM believes that although it does not entirely explain differences in pay, an overreliance on salary history has contributed to perpetuating the wage gap. For this reason, SHRM believes that HR professionals should use alternative ways to engage job candidates to reach an agreement on pay by asking, for example, for a candidate's salary expectation rather than salary history."

Parental and Family Leave

Sandberg, who has two young children, called for mandated paid maternity leave in the U.S.

"We are the only developed nation in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave," she pointed out.

While several states have passed or are considering laws that require paid paternal and family leave, Sandberg said there needs to be full wage reimbursement for all "men and women, and it needs to be for all family situations."

"Extending paid family leave to your workforce is so important," she said. "It's not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do."

[SHRM members-only policies: Leave Policy: Leave Request Procedure]

Alyssa Johnson is vice president of account management for Waltham, Mass.-based Care@Work, which provides employers with benefit programs to help workers care for children, seniors, pets and their homes. She said such leave, as well as other child care benefits, will increasingly affect the talent that companies are able to recruit.

"A trend we've been seeing is Millennial parents putting more of an emphasis on child care benefits than previous generations and going straight to their employer when asking for such support," she said. "They're doing their homework to see what benefits are out there [and] finding strength in numbers knowing they're not alone in their child care obligations."

SHRM supports efforts to help employees meet the dual demands of work and personal needs and believes that employers should be encouraged to voluntarily offer paid leave to their employees, as outlined in H.R. 4219, SHRM said in a policy statement.

H.R. 4219, which SHRM helped to develop, allows employers to voluntarily offer employees a qualified flexible work arrangement plan that includes a federal standard of paid time off and options for flexible work arrangements. This plan, covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, would pre-empt state and local paid leave and workflex laws.

Linh Spies is HR director at Arlington, Va.-based ThreatConnect Inc., which provides companies with cyber security. With two sons under the age of 2, Spies said she knows the importance of paid parental leave.

"Even just three months of paid leave would be a huge step, because right now, it's zero," she said. "It's just really sad to me when mothers have to go back to work after four weeks."

Bereavement Leave

Following the sudden death of her husband, Silicon Valley executive Dave Goldberg, in 2015, Sandberg championed extended bereavement leave. At the time of her husband's death, Facebook offered 10 days of leave for employees who had lost immediate family members. The company has extended that to 20 days. It also offers 10 days of leave for employees who've lost extended family members.

"I never really thought about bereavement leave before," she said, noting that it's an inexpensive benefit. "The thing about bereavement leave is people only take it when they really need it. ... We see the benefit not just for the people who get it, but for the people around them also."

As for Sandberg's comments on bereavement leave, Spies noted that most companies she knows of offer only three days of such leave.

"It's not going to cost a lot because people won't use it unless they need it, and no one wants to use it."


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