When Facebook’s Sara Sperling decided to lead a group of employees at the 2011 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, she wasn’t sure what to expect. The event marked a pivotal moment for the organization and for Sperling, the company’s head of diversity.
To kick off the day, Sperling, Andrew Noyes, manager of public policy communications at Facebook, and a few other employees woke up at 5 a.m. to prepare for the festivities and decorate a Jeep Wrangler with balloons and streamers. Soon after, company participants began rushing down the street, cheering, shouting and throwing free items into the crowd.
In its first year, 300 employees took part in the San Francisco Pride Parade. Sperling’s advocacy led to more than 450 participating the following year — a 50 percent increase.
Sperling said when she was a student at the University of California at Irvine, she never would have imagined dedicating her life to inclusion, educating the world and liberating people. She had a passion for mathematics and economics, and was certain that would be her path. But since joining Facebook in 2010, Sperling said she has landed her dream job, and she has dedicated her career to ensuring her peers can promote their authentic selves — a mission that’s continually repeated by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive.
“A lot of my job is about building our community here inside of Facebook, and helping with the culture,” she said. “I don’t have a typical day. I’ll have meetings with people to talk about programs that we’ll have, or I’ll be helping plan our mentoring program, which I helped start. I wish I had a typical day, but I don’t think anyone here at Facebook does.”
Her schedule hasn’t always been so flexible. Sperling joined Facebook from Yahoo’s learning and development team, where she was the senior learning and development program manager. She was responsible for increasing productivity, measuring impact and producing a return on learning investment. She initially joined Facebook’s then two-member learning and development team. From there, she worked to find her niche in the company.
“Anytime I get to a company, I look for my community, and at Facebook it doesn’t take long to establish employee resource groups, so I helped create our lesbian, gay, bisexual [and] transgender employee group,” she said.
When Sperling was notified the company needed someone to lead diversity and inclusion efforts, she said she was surprised, but willingly embraced the opportunity because she has always been passionate about the topic. She has been published in several books, including Secret Sisters: Stories of Being Lesbian and Bisexual in a College Sorority and It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living.
“Facebook is a company where it’s not necessarily about your experience or your background,” she said. “It’s about what you’re passionate about and if you can give something to help change the world.”
Noyes said Sperling’s passion for diversity and enthusiasm for her job and for the company have facilitated her success; she’s also skilled at bringing people from diverse backgrounds together. “It’s phenomenal,” he said. “She’s one of Facebook’s best representatives. When you look at the mission about making the world more open and connected, she exemplifies that.”
Focus on Inclusion — the ERG
Although Facebook has only had a formal diversity program for one year, employees have already established six ERGs. Sperling said the diversity team is working on another group for people with physical disabilities.
When Noyes and Sperling created the LGBT employee resource group, it had between 15 and 20 members. Since the group’s conception, its membership has expanded across the company through a number of initiatives such as the Gay Pride Parade. Today, the group has more than 300 members.
Ensuring diversity within each of the company’s ERGs is a strategic priority for Sperling. Some 25 percent of each ERG is composed of employees who don’t identify as that particular group. This lends itself to collaboration, another key priority for Sperling which is emphasized throughout the company.
“There’s been a number of instances where we’ve brought in speakers for the LGBT group, and members of the Blacks at Facebook or Latinos at Facebook groups attend and vice versa,” Noyes said. “Sara makes sure that all of the leaders of all the ERGs are in touch regularly and know what’s going inside each ERG.”
Sperling said employees are encouraged to share their ideas both on and offline, just as the company showcases its Facebook Diversity Page. The page has generated more than 155,000 “likes” since its inception last year, and is accessible to anyone internally or externally. On the page users can find information about things such as the organization’s campaign to stop online and offline bullying, for which Facebook received a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award.
Facebook’s diversity efforts also extend offline. Noyes said the organization has aligned with representatives at companies such as social gaming hub Zynga, LinkedIn and Twitter in an effort to spark discussion, share ideas and encourage best practices.
Lean in to Diversity
Alongside Sperling’s efforts, members of Facebook’s C-suite also have been in the diversity spotlight. As the company was preparing for its IPO last spring, protesters swarmed the entrance to its Madison Avenue offices in New York City to deliver a petition with 53,000 signatures asking the world’s largest social network to add women to its all-male board ahead of its public offering. In April 2012, a group of Yale University students launched the FACE IT campaign, which garnered support from community leaders and business professionals across the world.
The campaign protested the lack of diversity on Facebook’s board, which at the time consisted solely of white men. The group said Facebook needed to go public with a board that reflected its own mission — to make the world more open and connected. And, according to research by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, female users make up more than half of the network’s 900 million users and tend to be its most active members.
“We tried to rally up just a little outrage and point out that people should be paying attention to issues like this,” said Claire Gordon, one of the campaign’s founding members.
Since two women now serve on Facebook’s board, the picture has changed. In March, Susan Desmond-Hellmann left her job as chancellor at the University of California at San Francisco to become the board’s second female member.
The company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, was the first. Gordon said in light of recent changes to the board, she now regards Sandberg as a feminist icon for female advancement in the corporate world.
“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” Sandberg wrote in her book Lean In. “[The result is that] men still run the world.”
FACE IT campaign founder Alice Baumgartner said the recent addition of Desmond-Hellmann to Facebook’s board is encouraging because it shows there are women who are qualified to sit on boards, and that this is a problem of demand, not supply. “It also suggests that Facebook is taking its diversity problem seriously,” she said. “The ratio of female to male directors, now two to nine, is not parity, but it’s not tokenism, either. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Sperling said the company is fortunate to have an outspoken C-suite that supports all diversity and inclusion efforts. “I’m really glad we have someone out there speaking about us. Sheryl Sandberg speaks so much about women and women leading men and sitting at the table,” she said. “All of the organization’s executives support the expansion of ERGs and hold true to their main mission to encourage one’s authentic self.”
While Facebook enjoys its fair share of press, parades and parties to support diversity causes, Sperling said it’s important for employees and users to know diversity is a serious matter for the company. Two years ago, a few employees joined forces to create a video for the It Gets Better Project, a movement to combat teen bullying and violence against LGBT youth; both Sperling and Sandberg were featured.
In the video Sperling speaks candidly about her own journey coming out. “I was the typical straight girl. I had the boyfriend, I was the president of my high school, I played sports, but I knew I was different,” she said. “Even though I had friends who were gay and people who are open, you still think that you’re the only one that’s going through exactly what you’re going through.”
The Future at Facebook
Sperling said Facebook is interesting to those in the field of diversity and inclusion because challenges other companies face often don’t apply at the organization. The demographic pool Facebook tends to hire from understands the tenets of diversity without a lot of specialized training. “We tend to hire people who are of a certain generation that has heard these words before or come from a different demographic of families,” she said. “They might come from families that look and feel and are different, so we are really focusing our efforts here on inclusion.”
In February Facebook announced that Sperling’s role will expand and a global head of diversity will be hired to keep up with the organization’s growing number of internal and external diversity programs, and to promote a focus on inclusion efforts.
“We want people to be their true self on Facebook, on our actual platform, so we’d better do that here in the workplace,” she said. “I’m in my dream job for right now. I love it, and this is exactly what I should be doing. People always tell me they want my job, but I don’t know if they actually want my job, or if they just see me and how much I love what I do.”