Yesterday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke at Barnard’s commencement ceremony. The video of the speech is on Barnard’s Website, and someone transcribed it here. Besides being an interesting speaker and an executive at one of the key tech companies in the world today, I have a particular interest in this speech. I graduated Columbia shortly after Sandberg graduated One of Sandberg’s key points is that her generation, the one that graduated Harvard, and my wife graduated Barnard shortly thereafter. I always have a warm spot in my heart for Columbia and Barnard.
Sheryl had two very interesting lines: First, that the key moral challenge of the 19th century was slavery, the key challenge of the 20th was totalitarianism (I assume she meant both the Fascist and Communist kinds) and the key challenge of the 21st is oppression of women around the world. I cannot but agree, except to say that it is not only the oppression of women, but the oppression of people. There is no doubt there are many societies where women are oppressed more than men, but in the end, freedom for all as a principle brings freedom to all.
The more interesting business point is that Sandberg says women of her (that means my) generation had succeeded in being educated, yet had failed in equality. She brought statistics showing how women make up >50% of college graduates, but far lower than that in senior educated positions, such as executives, professors, and other roles.
I do not know the macro statistics enough to agree or disagree. I can speak from a micro-economic perspective of individual companies: if you run a business or division or group, no matter how big or small, and especially in the fast-moving and competitive tech space, no one can afford to be stupid enough to pick employees or leaders, and how to relate to them, based on anything other than their merits: their ideas, their execution, and how they work with others. Never hire an idiot over a smart person just because they are a man or woman or Jewish or Muslim or from New England or Texas, and never hire a smart person over an idiot just because of it either. Hire the best you can for the role, ignore the rest.
One of the reasons I have always loved the tech industry is how much, at least internally, the brutal competitive process and scientific nature of the engineering forces that mindset. I know that VCs can be an “old boys’ club,” but overall, Sheryl, macro notwithstanding, our sector offers the best hope for that equality, however defined, and for many people is just the natural way of being. Call it my naivete, I have always viewed the world this way, and have faith the best out there do as well.