Women Leaders, Relying on Their Peers’ Power and Their Own

Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg reflect on gender—how it shaped their lives, and what role it will play in the future.

This story appears in the January 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

For 3 Questions this month, we interviewed two leaders who have blazed trails on matters of gender. Writer and activist Gloria Steinem, 82, has been one of the world’s leading feminists since the 1960s. In her memoir, My Life on the Road, the Ms. magazine co-founder describes a life of nearly constant travel, from her itinerant childhood to her ongoing global advocacy. Sheryl Sandberg, 47, is a champion for women’s leadership and the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. After years of government service, she leaned in to the tech boom, first with Google and now as chief operating officer for Facebook.

Steinem and Sandberg answered our questions in separate interviews, which have been edited for length and clarity.

What was a defining moment in your life, related to gender?

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Gloria Steinem, feminist writer, activist and co-founder of The Women's Media Center

Gloria Steinem: It’s difficult to think of a defining moment because gender, in my generation, was just so assumed. I never remember wanting to be a boy, except perhaps to put my feet over the movie seat in front of me in the theater. And I never remember feeling limited as a girl, because I was not going to school very much. It came as a shock and surprise when I got to be a teenager and gender became very limiting and very important. There were always whispers and rumors about girls who got pregnant and had to get married. If someone was raped, it was her fault. In my teenage years I became aware of being careful.

Sheryl Sandberg: One was being pregnant and realizing we should offer parking for expectant mothers. The “aha” wasn’t, oh my God, Google needed pregnancy parking. The “aha” was that I had to be pregnant myself to think of it. I opened my book with this, but I’m not sure I drove home the point: It matters to have diverse voices at the table. When I first entered the workforce, in 1991, there were just as many women as men going into entry-level jobs. I looked to the side of me, and it was equal. But I looked above me, and it was almost entirely men. As my career progressed, I had fewer and fewer women in every group I was part of. If you look back at the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s, of course we’ve made progress. But we have not made progress in getting a greater share of the top jobs, in any industry, in the past decade.

What do you consider the most pressing gender issue today?

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Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's vice-president for global online sales and operations

GS: I suppose getting rid of [the idea of] gender. You know, living in India was a revelation because I came to understand that there were old languages that didn’t have gender—that didn’t have “he” and “she.” The more polarized the gender roles, the more violent the society. The less polarized the gender roles, the more peaceful the society. We are each unique and individual human beings. We are linked; we are not ranked. The idea of race and the idea of gender are divisive.

SS: It’s definitely equal rights and equal opportunity for women. As part of that, access to information is critical. There are four billion people still not connected to data and the Internet, and more of those are women than men. Connectivity is a very important driver of opportunity.

What advice would you give to girls and boys today?

GS: To trust the unique voice inside them. And to be sure and listen as much as they speak, so that they are honoring the other unique people outside them. It’s important for girls not to internalize a sense of passivity or inferiority or second-classness, and for boys not to internalize a sense of having to be stronger or superior or in control. What helps the most is for boys to be raised to raise children. I don’t have children, but I was raised to raise children—to be empathetic and pay attention to detail and be patient. Boys are often raised that way, but not often enough.

SS: Raise your hand if you’re a girl in class; run for class president. If you’re interested in it, be a leader. Don’t let the world tell you girls can’t lead. From the moment they’re born, boys and girls are treated according to stereotypes. We tell little boys, “Don’t cry like a girl.” Not helpful. I’d add that we all need people who will encourage us. Here’s an example: We help women form Lean In Circles and just hit 29,000 circles in over 150 countries. That shows the power of peers. We cannot just help ourselves take on leadership roles; we can help each other. There are men in these circles too—men who are really working hard toward equality.