I Leaned In: Why Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Circles’ Actually Help


The women could have been pulled from the pages of a Benetton ad. They were in their late twenties and early thirties, tech CEOs and entrepreneurs, in pencil skirts and heels. Two were the first in their families to graduate from college. None of them called themselves feminists. And yet the women had gathered in a downtown office building on a Sunday for a three-hour meeting that could only be described as a modern-day version of a sixties consciousness-raising group. This time, the women had replaced "feminism" with "Leaning In."

"This is something I would have loved to have earlier in my career," said the group's organizer, 26-year-old Caroline Ghosn. "I rarely had female mentors," agreed Alisa Leonard, 31. "Hearing from other people," said Maxine Kaye, 30, "is just so comforting."

This was one of the first “Lean In Circles,” a meeting inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, hasn't even hit stores yet (it will Monday) but has already caused a circus. Sandberg's argument, that in addition to external obstacles, women should overcome their own insecurities — she calls it Leaning In — has been dubbed victim-blaming. Her perch, as a wealthy COO, has been called out of touch. And her initiative to launch a social movement around the book's release — powered by a foundation, an educational partnership, and a network of "circles" like this — has been recast as a branding exercise. For a book that uses the words "feminist manifesto" — and quotes Gloria Steinem at length — Sandberg has all but been accused of trying to co-opt feminism for her own personal gain.

Despite the criticism, what's been missing from the conversation is the voice of the women at whom the book is aimed: the twenty- and thirtysomethings of my generation who will be the force behind it; the grassroots counter-momentum to Sandberg's controversial top-down approach. Would we join in? Would we buy into it? Would we lean into the circles?

The answer is yes. We are leaning the fuck in.

If you follow the "kickoff" guidelines given out on Lean In's site, a circle goes something like this: three minutes of introduction. Forty minutes to watch an instructional video (topics range from negotiation to power to team dynamics). Personal stories. Goal-setting. Then meeting scheduling. Ultimately, members are encouraged to sign a commitment to be a part of the group. Slick corporate jargon? Yes — complete with educational instruction, printed out pamphlets, and the kind of marketing campaign that would come only from, well, a woman who works at Facebook. (As Maureen Dowd has called her, "Power Point Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots.")

And yet the beauty of Lean In is that, despite all the formality, you can make the group whatever you want to make the group. And so, that night, I decided to do just that — curious how my circle might differ, and craving the opinions of my less MBA-inclined network. I walked home, sending out mass texts to a bunch of ladyfriends on the way. I made a pit stop at Trader Joe's. By 8 p.m., six women — two journalists, two comedians, a TV producer, and a chef — were huddled in my apartment, talking about what to make of the Sandberg backlash (and the backlash to the backlash).

For me, hosting a Lean In circle wasn't all that atypical; I've been part of a feminist consciousness-raising group (or, as we like to call it, RAISING CON) for years. No, we never had a Lean In guide to follow, and yet our topics were stunningly similar to Sandberg's own: sitting at the table (we mean literally); learning how to negotiate (women are four times less likely to do so); tackling our own insecurities (seriously: Quit ending your sentences in a question?).

The novelty of Lean In is that for many young women, it's put words to what we'd long felt but couldn't quite articulate; the insecurities, the self-doubt, the fear that causes us to keep our hands down. Because, whether we'd recognized it or not, each of us reared in the Girl Power era of the eighties had been grappling with precisely what Sandberg aims to conquer. How do we act with authority without being perceived as bossy? What if we aren't ready to risk questioning the status quo, if it means setting ourselves back? How can we figure out a way to work within the system, while at the same time acknowledging its flaws?

Sandberg may never be feminist enough, grassroots enough, inclusive enough, mom enough for everyone. But she has labeled a solution for problems that are rampant among a generation raised to believe that we were on level footing — and a pragmatic approach to change it. She's also managed to bridge a gap that has mystified many an activist before her: reaching women who both self-identify as feminists (me), and those who don't (the women I met at the first Lean In circle). She is, as one colleague recently joked, the first embodiment of "Big Feminism" (think Big Pharma, but with nicer hair).

Sure, we know there are massive structural problems, too — and Sandberg goes out of her way to acknowledge that institutional change is necessary. "Let's agree to wage battles on both fronts," she writes. But it's the little things we can control. "Don't tilt your head. Don't self-deprecate. Sit at the fucking table," as one of my circle members put it.

"I think in general, there's the feeling among women of this generation that we're part of a movement,” says Leonard, the 31-year-old I met on Sunday. “And I think this is a way we're going to catalyze it."

“This is sort of like our business plan for success,” added Kaye, another attendee.

Call it Lean In, call it consciousness-raising, call it whatever you want. When was the last time anybody talked this much about a women’s place in the world, period? Sandberg’s Lean In is opening up the dialogue — and, in true Silicon Valley fashion, she’s made it scalable.