Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter: @lisabonos.
When Jasmine McElroy enters Room 200 at Howard University’s School of Business on a recent Friday night, she starts to sit in the second row, behind a semicircle of about 10 classmates already deep in conversation. But then Lean In campus coordinator Alysha McFall motions for her to take a seat within, not behind, the group.
You can almost hear Sheryl Sandberg: Sit at the table!
And that’s exactly what McElroy does.
It’s been a year since the publication of “Lean In,” Sandberg’s sort-of manifesto for getting women into leadership and helping them balance work with the rest of their lives. Beyond an endless debate over whether the Facebook executive is good or bad for feminism, the legacy of Sandberg’s movement won’t come down to book sales, a forthcoming movie or less sexist stock photography. It will be defined by Lean In Circles: clusters of women who meet regularly and keep one another focused on their goals, whether they’re trying to win a promotion, get into business school or learn to play guitar.
There are 14,000 Lean In Circles around the world, according to Sandberg’s Lean In foundation; and Sandberg has visited circles in Beijing, Istanbul, Minneapolis and Miami. Last month, I sat in on six circles in the Washington area and spoke to women in several more. Their members, or circlers, are the ones trying to live out the Lean In gospel. In a video pitching the circles, Sandberg invokes the success of book clubs and weight-loss groups. I found the Lean In Circles to be more like Alcoholics Anonymous fused with Girl Scouts — a support group built around a social movement.
There are no merit badges or 12 steps, but there is a clear curriculum: a book that’s sold 1.6 million copies, plus Lean In-branded videos about body language, workplace negotiation and knowing your strengths. There’s a focus on helping one another correct bad habits or, dare I say it, addictions. Such as: Stop telling yourself you’re not qualified for your dream job. Don’t say you’re sorry when you’re not. (Hi, I’m Lisa. And I’m an over-apologizer.)
And just as Daisies, Brownies and Cadettes learn and practice different skills, Lean In Circle conversations vary based on where you are in your life. Students in a Howard University circle discuss how to combat senioritis and debate whether they’re authoritative or approachable. (The answer to the latter, ladies, is both.) In another circle, 26- to 28-year-olds wonder whether their male colleagues dismiss them because they’re women or merely because they’re young. (It gets better in your 30s, I tell them.) Whatever phase they’re in, the groups are almost missionary in their zeal: An explicit goal of the Howard group, for example, is to persuade faculty members to start their own circles.
The positivity is relentless. Circlers cheer each other on. As in: “Whoever’s tweeting right now is doing a really good job.”
The tweeter in chief who got that praise from her Lean In group is Madeline Meth, a petite and polished brunette who looks like a 24-year-old Sandberg and has the book’s dictums down pat: Take credit for your work. Meth prides herself on tallying the “sorrys” (Don’t apologize! ) uttered by her fellow circlers. Rather than follow the Lean In curriculum, Meth’s group of 23-to-25-year-olds plans events such as media trainings and financial literacy panels — squeezing in career and life updates around agenda items. Announcements such as “I got a new job!” are greeted with enthusiastic finger-snaps.
Circlers strive to frame problems as opportunities and self-edit negative thoughts: “One bad thing — well, I don’t want to call it a bad thing, but a challenge . . .”
And, yes, they take things one day, one month, one year at a time. “I tried to approach things with a positive attitude — that worked for like a day,” a 26-year-old circler in Lululemon gear admitted to her group on a Sunday afternoon.
When a salary offer comes in lower than expected or a raise looks unlikely, a woman’s circlers become her sponsors and try to keep her from career stagnation. For example: Is there a conference your organization might send you to? Other professional-development opportunities that could make up for the money?
And if doubt does creep in, your Lean In sisters squash it. They have the stats about how women underestimate themselves memorized. So when a 34-year-old government-relations specialist says she recently thought about applying for a management job that “I kind of knew I wasn’t qualified for — ” another circler interrupts with: “Which isn’t true!” A third chimes in: “Overqualified!”
While it’s easy to find a circle, finding the right one can be more difficult. Alejandra Hall, a 36-year-old entrepreneur, tried three circles that just didn’t fit. Many of them had too many rules for attendance — it felt like “Mean Girls,” she tells me. So she started her own circle with Stacy McAlpine, whom she met because their daughters were, as Hall tells it, “the Brownie rejects.” The troops in their area said they were full and wouldn’t make space for their daughters — so Hall and McAlpine started their own Brownie troop.
The group for their girls has since fizzled, but the moms’ Lean In Circle is going strong. “One of the things that has made it work,” says fellow circler Audrey Foss, is that “even if we can’t do a full-on meeting, we’re on the phone with each other, supporting each other.”
The circlers I met are self-aware enough to know when things get cheesy: Almost every time someone uses the magic phrase, saying they “leaned in” to a presentation or a difficult task at work, laughter follows. Not every circler has read Sandberg’s book cover to cover, and even if they have, they don’t necessarily agree with every word. But for each woman, a piece of it resonates — and that’s enough to want to lean in.
Sandberg’s friendly feminism gets dinged for tinkering at the edges of corporate America rather than trying to subvert it. Yet the genius of her message is that it’s vague enough to be nearly universal. As Ananda Leeke, a Lean In Circle leader who’s also the founder of the Digital Sisterhood Network, an author and a yoga teacher, told me: “Leaning in also means silence” — not going blindly into leadership roles but taking a breath and figuring out where, exactly, you want to lean. Now that’s a definition that even Rosa Brooks, who recently called on women to reject Sandberg’s go-go-go message and “recline,” can support.
In my conversations, circlers often defended Sandberg before I even brought up any criticisms. A few asked what the angle of my story would be before agreeing to an interview. And one cooed, in a follow-up e-mail to me, “please send our appreciation on to Sheryl Sandberg for her leadership!”
(I don’t know her, but here’s a note to Sheryl: Your circlers can’t abide clunky technology. Nearly every group I observed complained that it was difficult to use the Mightybell Web site, the official platform where Lean In Circles post updates and prospective members can find a group to join. Several groups preferred to keep in touch via, yes, Facebook.)
Advising women to “lean in” connotes small changes — a tilt here, a tweak there — over drastic ones. But sometimes a quest for a small change can lead to big ones. In the words of one circler, the book helped her pinpoint job benefits “I never would’ve thought to ask for.” When a 33-year-old new mom was recently offered a job that would’ve required a three-to-four-hour daily commute from Silver Spring to Herndon, she asked her prospective employer to cover transportation costs. Instead, the company covered moving expenses for her family to relocate close to the office. “It was the first time I negotiated the terms of my employment,” she tells me.
Lean In Circles have extended into the very realm they’re trying to change: the workplace. Locally, organizations including Visa, AARP and KPMG have started in-house circles for their employees. But really, how frank can you be about confronting gender bias in the workplace when you’re meeting in a company conference room? I heard from one woman in a workplace circle who has attended a few meetings but is discouraged that every guest speaker has been a man. Cue the gif: Sheryl Sandberg is not impressed.
She is impressed, however, with the men who buy in to her message. When I heard Sandberg speak in Washington last year, she asked the guys in the packed room to raise their hands — and quipped that they’d all get laid that night. It was a laugh line, sure, but she’s serious about bringing men into the fold.
“It’s time to man up and lean in,” Kunal Modi, a McKinsey & Co. consultant, writes in “Lean In: For Graduates,” a new edition of the book forthcoming in April. “Gender issues are men’s issues too,” he writes. “Undervaluing half our population limits the performance of our economies and companies. Expecting men to focus primarily on their jobs often prevents us from being full partners at home, which harms our families and children.”
AARP says a few men participate in its circles; there were about 10 men at the Lean In kick-off event in January. And a handful often come to the events planned by Meth’s group. Men are using the lingo, too: Bonnie Boyle, 26, an office manager and off-campus-housing coordinator at the Georgetown Law Center, says that before she leaves for work every morning, her fiance gives her a hug and reminds her to lean in.
This acceptance is what Erica Zimmerman, a 23-year-old organizer in Meth’s circle, is looking for in a partner — she even uses Lean In as a dating litmus test. If she mentions her Lean In Circle and the guy seems interested and asks questions, she thinks she’s probably on a date with a feminist. But, “if I get any kind of raised eyebrows or a snarky comment, I’ll be like, ‘Check, please.’ ”
Read more from Outlook on “Lean In”:
Katharine Weymouth: How do you ‘lean in’ if you don’t have someone to lean on?
Jessica Valenti: Sheryl Sandberg isn’t the perfect feminist. So what?