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In Boston, Sheryl Sandberg pitches ‘Lean In’ message

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the new book "Lean in," spoke at the Commonwealth Institute's luncheon at the Seaport Boston Hotel.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of the new book "Lean in," spoke at the Commonwealth Institute's luncheon at the Seaport Boston Hotel.

Her book may have spurred criticism in some quarters, but the message Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg delivered in Boston Thursday was embraced by an enthusiastic audience of professional women during a luncheon at the Seaport Hotel.

The company’s chief operating officer urged the hundreds of women in attendance to believe in themselves, be ambitious, and take the lead. That is, in her own words, to “lean in.” The event was one in a series Sandberg is scheduled to hold in the area as part of a national campaign to promote her newly released best-selling book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

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“The best way to reform an institution is to run it,’’ she said. “No one listens to the person on the side of the room.”

“The best way to reform an institution is to run it,’’ Sandberg said.

“The best way to reform an institution is to run it,’’ Sandberg said.

Her message was heard by like-minded people — the talk was organized by The Commonwealth Institute, a Boston nonprofit aimed at helping grow businesses led by women. The room was filled with business and political leaders, including state Senator Karen Spilka and former lieutenant governor Evelyn Murphy.

Sandberg’s book, published March 11, is atop the New York Times best seller list and has sold about 275,000 copies. Her 2010 talk at a TED conference, which prompted the book, has more than 2 million online views. In her talk and book, Sandberg makes the case for her “lean-in” campaign, urging women to fight societal pressures to stand back, be nice, and count themselves out of key positions or opportunities.

Sheryl Sandberg’s book, published March 11, is atop the New York Times best-seller list and has already sold about 275,000 copies.

Bill Greene/ Globe staff

Sheryl Sandberg’s book, published March 11, is atop the New York Times best-seller list and has already sold about 275,000 copies.

“Lean In” is prompting debate about women’s lackluster presence in government, business, and nonprofit leadership positions. While some have hailed it as a call to arms, others have said Sandberg’s approach is unrealistic and unfairly blames women for a society that makes it hard to become leaders while also being involved in their families at home. Her critics say a multimillionaire with two degrees from Harvard University cannot really understand the challenges people of lesser means and accomplishments face.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for instance, called Sandberg a “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.” Dowd said Sandberg claims to want to launch a social revolution, but is really promoting herself.

But at the Seaport Thursday, Sandberg was given a enthusiastic reception, earning a standing ovation. Commonwealth Institute chair Pamela Reevee, who moderated the discussion, said Sandberg addresses many problems that are not new, but are still relevant. For example, Sandberg noted women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and only hold about 14 percent of executive officer positions in the United States.

“There are a lot of things that haven’t changed, said Reeve, a former chief executive of the Burlington technology company Lightbridge Inc.

Murphy, founder of the Brookline-based nonprofit Wage Project, which focuses on fighting wage discrimination, said Sandberg has provided an important platform on her website, leanin.org, for women to share stories and educate themselves through lectures created in conjunction with Stanford University.

“She is kickstarting a social movement with social media, and she is the expert with that,” Murphy said. “This is a call to action.”

Some of those who came to hear Sandberg’s story at the Seaport also shared their own “Lean In” moments. Spilka said she pushed herself when she ran for the male-dominated Massachusetts Senate in 2004. Today, she is one of 11 women serving in the chamber. “A woman has to work harder, smarter, and better” to compete with men, Spilka said.

Susan Windham-Bannister, chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, said Sandberg’s book has given her a boost, and new lingo, to help her face daily challenges. “It’s nice to have somebody put this into words,” she said.

Sandberg said writing the book was an example of her own “leaning in,” a decision to be ambitious and speak for women despite the risk of criticism. Women still face many systemic barriers, she said, and the best way to remove them is by putting more women in top corporate positions.

“We need a heated debate,’ she said. “Things that are stagnant don’t move unless someone gets upset.”

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at jmckim@globe.com. Follow her on twitter ­@jbmckim.

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