Women form ‘Lean In’ circles of empowerment

2013-05-05T20:00:00Z Women form ‘Lean In’ circles of empowermentBy JOCELYN NOVECK — AP National Writer

NEW YORK — “Remember — you are your own brand,” business coach Franne McNeal was telling some 100 women crowded into a downtown Manhattan office lounge one evening recently.

“If you lean back, you are denying the universe your greatness. So lean in, shout out, and get comfortable with who you are! Tonight is about teamwork.”

Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook chief operating officer whose best-selling book, “Lean In,” inspired the meeting, would surely have been happy with the turnout. Her book, and the national discussion it seeks to launch, is aimed at helping women empower themselves in the workplace. On its final page, it suggests forming small circles to continue the conversation. The idea is about 10 people per group, but more than 10 times that number showed in response to an open invitation on LinkedIn from Mary Dove, a New York psychotherapist.

Many of those attending, though not all, had read “Lean In,” which came out in March to a burst of publicity, blockbuster sales and much controversy. Was Sandberg, as some of the negative reviewers asserted, essentially putting the blame on women for their inability to fully crack the glass ceiling? Was she giving a pass to government and employers, and instead firing, as one USA Today columnist wrote, the “latest salvo in the war on moms?”

Not surprisingly, the women at the New York meeting were fans of the book, saying that in Sandberg’s anecdotes they’d found much to recognize from their own lives — especially instances when they “leaned back.”

Lauren Tilstra, 27, had just read the book on a beach in Latin America, during a break between jobs. In an interview, she recalled that at her previous job, when her boss and mentor left, she realized she wasn’t getting a seat at the table anymore — and wasn’t being aggressive about claiming one.

“I was being left out of conversations,” says Tilstra, of Hoboken, N.J. “I was kind of leaning back, and not getting into things that were going on. That’s when I realized I had to find somewhere I could lean in.” At her new job, which she began just this week, she hopes to gain a leadership role and build her own team.

Tilstra was happy for the chance to share her thoughts at the Lean In circle last week. After an opening talk, the facilitator, McNeal, organized the group into smaller circles, based geographically to make monthly meetings easier. “It’s a unique group of women,” Tilstra says. “These are women I never would have come across in my day-to day life.” Her group plans to rotate between homes in New Jersey, much like a book club.

Which is exactly how Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president of, describes the circles: “A book club with a purpose.”

“It’s all about practical support,” says Thomas, whose foundation is based in Palo Alto, Calif. “The goal is to help women put the ideas of Sheryl’s book into practice.”

To that end, the foundation has extensive content on its website (proceeds from Sandberg’s book, Thomas says, go to the foundation) including videos, produced with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford, exploring issues like how to negotiate — a thorny issue for many women — and how to use better body language. There are also detailed kits for Lean In circles.

Of course, the big question is how many of these circles are forming. Thomas doesn’t have an answer, partly because the groups don’t need to report back to her foundation.

“We think they’re just sprouting up organically,” Thomas says. She says she’s heard from women as far off as India, Britain and Australia; one woman at a mining company in northeastern Canada wanted to participate remotely.

But for many, it seems to be the element of personal contact that’s most appealing. “It’s like Girl Scouts for adults,” says Linda Brandt, 43, who started a circle in Minneapolis, where she works in public health.

Brandt hasn’t read Sandberg’s book yet, but she’s watched her now-famous 2010 talk to the annual TED conference that went viral. She especially likes one of Sandberg’s best-known lines: “Don’t leave before you leave.”

While the Lean In groups seem to skew toward women in their 20s and 30s, there’s certainly a range. In Tulsa, Okla., Dorothy Minor, 66, has started a circle at the community college where she teaches.

“There are eight of us, 26 and up,” Minor says. For the older employees, there are issues of transition and retirement. And the younger ones “can benefit from our collective wisdom,” she says. “It just seemed like a great way to get together and talk things out.”

Tilstra, the New Jersey woman, agrees. After the meeting, she and a friend debriefed each other at a Mexican restaurant. They both felt it was going to be great to have a sounding board.

“You can’t always trust people at work, and it’s nice not to have to complain to your significant other,” Tilstra says.

Besides, she adds: “Everybody can use a little therapy.”

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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