Lean In Circles: Women Supporting Each Other at Work

This photograph is the product of nine intelligent, professional women trying to figure out how to operate a camera’s self-timer. This may have been the fourth try on the second (!) camera we attempted to use, so if we look a little wild-eyed, that’s why. Anyway…

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead explores issues of women in the workplace that she initially examined in her 2010 TED Talk “Why we have too few women leaders”. While reading this book I was challenged and disturbed by Sandberg’s analysis of what keeps women from rising to the tops of organizations, and invigorated by her thoughts about what women can do to break through the very real glass ceilings (of both our own and others’ creations) in order to attain career success and recognition.

When I was in college, I was fortunate enough to take several amazing, formative courses on women’s history and women’s roles in society from some very strong female professors. After beginning my actual career, however, and then gliding through my 20s and 30s without much professional angst, I stopped thinking so much about gender and career, as I didn’t see anything that I found particularly disturbing. I’ve started to sit up and pay more attention over the past two years, however, both in my own life and in the world in general. It’s clear that gender biases exist. I’ve been reading more on social media as well as in the traditional media and have been feeling increasingly that there is something I could do to help myself and to connect with other like-minded women.

After I read Lean In, I was hungry for more connection and ended up discovering that an entire foundation has been established to support the Lean In cause! On its website, LeanIn.Org states:

We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.

One important element of LeanIn.Org is Lean In Circles, which are small groups of women committed to career growth, leadership, and maximizing their own potential. Another like-minded colleague and I decided, after a night of cocktails at a departmental party (always a good start to new collaborative efforts!), to create a Lean In Circle at our school. We debated about how best to go about creating a solid group– should we just ask people we already knew and with whom we felt comfortable, or should we open it up to the whole school and see how it shakes out? We ultimately decided on the latter, which ended up being a great decision. We were concerned at first because the Lean In organization advises circles not to have more than twelve people, mainly in order to ensure everyone’s personal investment and commitment to one another, but we trusted that it would ultimately work out. I think we started with almost twenty interested women, but after the first few meetings we ended up with a core group of eleven– the perfect size. We meet once a month for about 2 hours, rotating between members’ homes. We found that Sunday afternoons are best for most people, with a few weekday evenings thrown in every few months. Whoever hosts the meeting provides the food, often with help from one or two others, and then everyone is asked to bring wine. Yes, we do have wine (or sangria, thanks to a few talented mixologist members!). Obviously wine is not necessary, but it does help create a relaxed and social atmosphere, and it also helps differentiate these meetings from typical “work” meetings.

The Lean In website is amazing, because it provides downloadable guides for about twelve ready-made meetings, which have taken us a year to work through. It will also soon have a receptacle of “Create Your Own” meeting resources, which should be helpful as well. Additionally, there is a large library of videos that can be used to spark discussion on a variety of topics. A colleague and I meet a few days before each meeting to read through that week’s guide (meeting themes have included “Connecting”, “Energizing”, “Framing”, etc.) and decide who is going to lead which section. After trying a few different things, we found that printing packets for each group member worked best. That way members could read along with the instructions, write down their thoughts, and complete activities easier than if they did not have the text in front of them.

So those are the logistics of how we hold and plan our meetings, but what about the good stuff? What do we get out of it? SO MUCH. We have women from Elementary, Middle and High School, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s. We have women who currently hold leadership positions (though no upper administrators) and women who have not yet held official leadership positions. We have women from North America, South America, Australia, the UK, and even one truly “TCK” (Third Culture Kid). We did not all know each other. We all have different career goals. We have different personalities. AND we all support one another 150%. Our meetings are completely safe spaces, with the explicit understanding that what is said in the meetings stays within the meetings. We share our frustrations at work as well as our successes. But even more than that, we help each other THINK and REFLECT on what these frustrations and successes mean. And while we all acknowledge that getting complaints and frustrations off our chest is important, we also all acknowledge that we don’t wish to rest in our dissatisfaction or frustration. Rather, we help each other to figure out how to navigate our situations, and how to understand that gender issues in the workplace are real and how to work with each other and with our colleagues to make our jobs and our organization a better, stronger, fairer place to work. The tone of all of our meetings is positive, with the ultimate goal being to strengthen our own capacities and to understand not only what we want out of our careers, but also how to form a roadmap to get there.

Also, as I’ve documented in this blog, I’ve just gone through a major, months-long job search. A HUGE, impossible to overestimate, boon to me during this time was the unwavering support I received from my Lean In group. These women regularly checked in, sent me emails of support, took time to listen to my hopes and fears during meetings, and just generally had my back. They’ll never know how much their care meant to me, and I can’t wait to do the same for them someday.

If you’ve got the drive, and are considering starting a Lean In Circle of your own, go for it! Find some women who are interested in leadership and career– even those with whom you have loose connections– and see what you can create. It’s been a transformative and inspiring journey for us. If you need something to get you started, read Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, or How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life by McKinsey consultants Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston.

Good luck, and Lean In!