CHICAGO — Men who succeed become more and more popular as they climb the corporate ladder, but what about women? Female executives who succeed are consistently less and less liked, various studies show, and Sheryl Sandberg should know.

Facebook’s COO told approximately 20,000 attendees Wednesday at the Society for Human Resource Management conference that gender bias is ingrained early when young boys are encouraged for their assertive behavior, while girls are dismissed as “bossy” or “too aggressive” in grade school and childhood playgrounds. By the time children reach the workplace as young adults, corporate culture systematically reinforces those stereotypes and typically holds back women and diverse workers.

“Men still run the world, and I’m not sure it’s going so well,” Sandberg said, challenging HR professionals to foster a fairer workplace environment. “That little girl isn’t bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills.”

Conscious and unconscious biases in the workplace is a huge challenge for HR directors, and it’s a particularly important issue for women of color and working mothers, Sandberg said, noting consistent hiring bias against women and minority candidates.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Bloomberg

“If you are a black mother who’s working, you have all of the biases going on,” Sandberg said. “We need to make it safer for everyone to talk about these issues.”

She noted that even when women and men succeed, most people ascribe women’s success to working hard, help from others and plain old luck. More often than not, for men, colleagues and bosses tend to ascribe male colleague’s success to skill.

Why does that matter?

People who are seen as possessing skills tend to get promoted in greater numbers, she said. HR professionals must systematically find these biases, systematically check them and change them.

The spread of the #MeToo movement has brought a harsh spotlight to workplace harassment in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and virtually every U.S. industry, which has sparked positive change. Yet, there have been various unintended consequences that threaten to hurt the cause of greater equality in the workplace, she said.

Half of male managers, for example, are afraid of holding one-on-one work meetings with women, let alone have a working dinner or social event with women, she noted.

“Why does it matter? It matters a ton,” she said, because women get fewer invites to important corporate social events such as fishing trips, whisky and cigar tastings, and golf trips where important decisions and bonding happen. Women don’t get the invite, she said.

“It is in those moments where people get the mentoring,” she said. In those moments, “we are going to lose ground.”

Sandberg also said paid parental and maternity leave is a huge opportunity for HR professionals to improve U.S. companies.

“We need leave, she said. “We are the only developed nation in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. … As corporate execs, we need to speak out.”

On a personal note, Sandberg also stressed the importance of bereavement leave, which she became a greater advocate for after her husband Dave Goldberg’s unexpected death more than three years ago.

Bereavement leave at Facebook used to be 10 days; the social media giant has since extended bereavement leave to 20 days for immediate family members. Since then, 17 companies and organizations, including Bank of America and the University of Chicago, have adopted extended leave policies, she noted.

HR directors have a sensitive role in helping workforces deal with colleagues who have lost spouses, children, or have family members coping with cancer.

“We’re not protecting people by not bringing it up,” she said. “We’re isolating them.”

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