New Delhi: Even before Facebook Inc.’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was released in March, it left people sharply divided on whether Sandberg, who has led a somewhat privileged existence, really knows what she’s talking about when she says women themselves are responsible for not really making it to leadership positions in the workplace. The manifesto-ish book has generated a debate on gender issues; women, child-bearing and the workplace; men taking on a more supportive role at home and at work; and why feminism concepts need a rethink. In a recorded interview, Sandberg examines why women always lean back and what can be done to bring them to the forefront. Edited excerpts:

A lot of the ideas/concepts/discussion points presented in ‘Lean In’ are fantastic when applied right at the start of career, and followed through life. But how hard is it for a woman to get on the leadership track midway through her career based on some of the ideas in the book?

You know, I really believe that the ideas in Lean In can apply at any point in your career. A couple of weeks ago I got a letter from a woman. She is 62 years old, she was a stay-at-home mom her whole life, and then 15 years ago, in 1998, her husband lost his job and could not get back into the workforce, and so she had to go and get a job for the first time in her life. She has been in the workforce since and has never had a raise. She read Lean In, went in, and asked for her first raise and got it.

You say women rarely make that one big decision to stay out of leadership roles. What are the small signs that can tell a woman that the leadership dream has started being sabotaged?

You know I learnt this the hard way in the last 15 years in the workforce. Time and time again, every man on my team was in my office talking to me, he wanted the next job, he wanted the next opportunity. We were opening a new office and he should lead it; we had a problem and he was going to solve it. Some women reach for those opportunities, but many more lean back. Even when I would approach them and say, “You should go for this or you are the right person to lead the new office or new project", they would say, “I am still learning in my current job" or “I don’t think I am ready for that", words I almost never heard from men. I think what happens is that women come into the workforce expecting that they will do a majority of the child care and housework. And they will and they do, and that is why women hold themselves back. I think it is only if we can encourage women to know that they can have the support that they need at home, we can also encourage them not to lean back in the office.

You say that it is okay to cry at work. In fact, you even mention that you have cried on Mark Zuckerberg’s shoulder at work. “Sharing emotions build deeper relationships," but what is the cutoff point?

You know I talk in the book about bringing your whole self to the work, and with that I mean that I don’t really believe that we are one type of person, Monday through Friday, 9-to-5, and then a different type of person in the nights and weekends. I think we are, all of us, emotional beings and it’s okay for us to share that emotion at work. I have also said I cry at work. Now, it’s not the best practice. I am not recommending that if anyone wants to get promoted, then go out and cry. What I am recommending is that as we think about being good colleagues, being good workers, being good employers, we ask people “how do you feel", not just how you think because so many of our decisions are based on how we feel.

You suggest women get out of the “get a mentor and you excel" philosophy to “excel and you will get a mentor" mode. Any other strong “do not do this ever" advice like this one?

(Laughs) I think the advice I have is, do not go into conversations unprepared. So when you have an opportunity, it is really your responsibility to be prepared. So, for example, if someone comes and interviews with me and they say, “What is the culture of Facebook like?" That is an okay question and I am happy to answer it. But here’s a better question. “I have read the last 10 articles on Facebook’s culture, and one of your premises is that you like to move fast and break things. What does that mean?" The second question shows preparation and that the person has put the time in. And I think always showing that you are prepared is very helpful, particularly in interview situations.

You talk about not hesitating to ask the pregnancy question candidly (at the hiring interview for Priti Choksi, now Facebook’s director for business development). What else should be talked about frankly when a manager is hiring or preparing a female team-mate to take more responsibility at work?

We have to talk about gender honestly and openly because we haven’t been talking about and by pretending that we are all the same, it’s not working. I am not recommending that companies tell women that they (women employees) have to tell them when they are gonna get pregnant. That’s absurd. Here’s what I am recommending; my brother did it recently. My brother is a doctor/surgeon and he was hiring a new surgical team. And he said to a woman he made a job offer to, this woman who just got engaged and is in her late 20s: “You may want to have children one day. It’s up to you whether you have children, but in my life, I noticed how my sisters and my wife struggled, they did not want anyone to know they were pregnant. They were afraid that they would lose their jobs. I don’t want that for you. My door is open. I am here to support you."

One of the hardest things in the book is to accept how you deconstruct the myth of work-life balance. There is no balance like this, especially in today’s super-connected era. Then is it not fair to say that women cannot really have it all?

So the words ‘have it all’, I think, are very problematic for women. We never use them for men because we assume that men can have professions and have children. But with women, when we say women cannot have it all, we basically think women have to choose. A huge percentage of the world’s women both have children and work full time. So we are setting up something as if it is a choice, but most women have to do both. But I think women can do this if we give them the support they need at the workplace and at home.

Can having more women in leadership roles tomorrow really iron out this work-life balance issue as you suggest in the book?

Data suggests that when there are more women in leadership roles, things are better not just for those women, but women all the way through. My book opens with the story of when I was pregnant at Google and I had to park really far away and walk for meeting. I went home that night, told the story to my husband about how I was sick and had to park really far away, and he worked at Yahoo at the time and he said, well don’t you have Pregnancy Parking. I had never heard of Pregnancy Parking. And so I marched in the next day and told one of our founders Sergey (Brin) “We need Pregnancy Parking," and he said of course we do. It is a small example, but it illustrates an important point that more women who are senior enough to demand what they need will help all women.

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