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Why Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Will Christen a New Navy Submarine

Sheryl Sanberg: Diversity is 'Mission Critical' For Better Military 3:04

The U.S. Navy has made an unconventional choice to sponsor its newest submarine: Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who is known for advocating women's empowerment through her "Lean In" book and campaign. Sponsors, who christen the ship, are always women but historically they were often the wives of senior officers or politicians with close ties to the Navy.

According to Navy lore, sponsors are said to imbue a ship with their personalities. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus chose Sandberg to sponsor the newest Virginia-class attack submarine, the USS Massachusetts. His spokesman, Capt. Patrick McNally, said Mabus looks for opportunities to connect the American public with their Navy. "Expanding the variety of people who serve as sponsors is another avenue to strengthen that connection," McNally said in an email.

The first time Sandberg used the phrase "lean in," her shorthand for urging women to push for leadership roles in the workplace, was during a lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2011. Sandberg has publicly praised Mabus for changing personnel policies to empower women who serve, such as tripling paid maternity leave to 18 weeks. They have met several times and he visited her at Facebook headquarters in California, McNally said.

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U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says Sandberg's selection is an exciting statement about the Navy's future. "She really has come to epitomize a successful empowered woman," he said Wednesday. "Her selection is merited in her own right. She's there because of what she has accomplished. She's not there as a partner or spouse."

Sandberg founded a nonprofit group to foster small support groups — "lean in circles" — to help women achieve their goals. The Department of Defense has partnered with the group to launch these circles throughout the military. Sandberg has been critical of gender and racial biases within the military. She called on military leaders in September to "champion that equality makes us stronger."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut said Sandberg will be the "public face" of the new submarine throughout its life. Courtney hopes she will inspire young girls to pursue careers in science and technology. The Navy lifted its ban on women serving on submarines in 2010.

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"We've got a lot of work to do as a country in terms of sparking that interest," Courtney said. "Having a high-profile person like her, I think, really sends a very powerful message."

Construction on the USS Massachusetts is scheduled to start in 2017 at General Dynamics Electric Boat's facility in Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Newport News Shipbuilding will do the final assembly work in Virginia. The submarine is expected to join the fleet in 2022.

Sandberg could not immediately be reached for comment.