During the Thursday afternoon plenary discussion at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2015, Sheryl Sandberg kept repeating one phrase: "It's real."
The Facebook COO and author of best-selling book Lean In sat with Ericsson board member Nora Denzel to discuss the various challenges of women in tech. Whether it's pay inequality, unconscious biases, the "mommy penalty," or cultural perceptions that frown on women being aggressive, Sandberg reinforced that all those elements serve as barriers to women starting and keeping successful careers in computer science and engineering.
One of the first topics they talked about is the pay gap and the fact that many still call it a myth. Commonly, it's said to be 77 cents to the dollar. Sandberg ran through various equalizing factors, like hours worked, and industry-specific gaps, getting that number up to 91 cents to the dollar.
"Even with the most conservative math you could do, it's still 91 cents and that's not okay," she said.
That led to the topic of salary and job negotiation and the idea that you don't get what you don't ask for.
One obstacle women face in negotiating and also in daily work life is the competence versus likeability problem. Sandberg talked about the rampant cultural perception surrounding the relationship amongst gender, aggression, and success. A successful man is generally liked better. A successful woman is seen as overly aggressive, partly because as a general rule, people are more comfortable with others who adhere to familiar stereotypes.
And on the subject of stereotypes, Denzel asked Sandberg if she'd call herself a feminist. Sandberg said "yes" and talked about the word. "I think we need to bring back the word 'feminism' and get rid of the word 'bossy,'" she said. When asked about the word, Sandberg said 35% of American women would use it to describe themselves, but when defined as someone who supported equality for men and women, the number jumps. And what's more, for men, if they want to succeed, they have to be able to effectively work with and understand the other half the population.
Part of what's involved in that understanding is weeding out unconscious biases, which affect everyone. For example, studies have shown that a resume with a "white" sounding name versus a "black" sounding name will get be perceived as more qualified and receive about 50% more callbacks. That's why it's important that companies during their hiring processes, have metrics outlined in advance of what constitutes an ideal candidate.
Toward the end, they also touched on the old question of work-life balance and creating environments where women don't have to feel like they have to tamp down talk of their families, or feel guilt for leaving the office at 5:30 p.m. Or, fear being judged for being at work instead of being with their children.
Situations like that can lead to retention problems. Sandberg encouraged the crowd to stay in the field, ultimately, in part saying that the only way to build the best products is if companies can use the full talents of the population.
"Stay in for yourselves because these are the best jobs and stay in for the women who follow you," she said.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.