We started a Lean In Circle at Stanford Libraries recently, and while I am very excited about it, I am well aware that the whole Lean In thing has its critics. Some of the most compelling criticisms of Lean In I’ve read to date are:
- that it is “a manifesto for corporatist feminism, career advice for the distaff side of the 1%”, with zero to say to the 99% and nothing to offer in terms of tactics for dismantling the structural barriers to gender equality.
- that it “assumes that the feminist question is simply, how can I be a more successful worker?“
- that it is only for women who can cry at work (i.e. white women).
Even though Sandberg goes to great lengths in both the book and in her talks to add all the right caveats about how not everyone wants it all and that’s OK, and to applaud those who are working on the structural side of the problem; I feel that her rhetoric often displays a kind of tone-deafness to those with different goals and values, and/or those who lack the privileges of class, race, and sexual orientation that she enjoys.
So why am I so excited to have started a Lean In Circle at Stanford that I even agreed to gush about it to the San Jose Mercury News? Well, some of the answers to that are in our Stanford Libraries news article about it:
Although librarianship is a female-dominated profession, women are still under-represented in leadership positions relative to their numbers in the profession. This is especially true in senior leadership roles at top research libraries. Moreover, as libraries become more digital and more reliant on technology expertise, our organizations are affected by the well-documented problems of gender inequality in the technology industry.
We at the Stanford University Libraries believe that our organization and the library profession at large are most effective when all of us are able and encouraged to contribute based on our skills, talents, passions and ideas, not based on our gender. Providing opportunities like the Leaning In @ Stanford Libraries Circle is one way we are activating that belief: by empowering and equipping our staff to talk about and overcome the obstacles we all face in the workplace and at home.
Lean In circles are kinda like a book club, but with a focus on equipping and empowering people to combat gender inequality and bias as they encounter it. They can be mixed gender groups, but we decided that our pilot group might work best as an all-female group. Our group decided to meet on a monthly basis, alternating between Educational meetings and Exploration meetings. At the Educational meetings, we will employ a flipped classroom approach. Before the meeting, each of us will watch one of the 20 minute videos from the Clayman Institute for Gender Research’s Voice & Influence curriculum. We will then use our meeting time to discuss the topic raised in the video and practice putting what we have learned into action. At the Exploration meetings, group members will share real-life challenges with each other, providing us all the opportunity to learn from our diverse experiences and insights.
I get that branding our Circle with the Lean In brand implies a certain level of agreement with Sandberg’s perspective; but I can tell you from our experience so far that the women in our group are too smart to buy into anything so uncritically. We’ve already had some great discussions of the many criticisms of Lean In, and I am certain we will continue to explore a wide range of perspectives on the issues. While we certainly could have started such a group before Sandberg came along, the sad fact is that we didn’t. The whole Lean In phenomena provided not only the impetus for the group, but also a layer of legitimacy that forestalls any open questioning of why we’re even talking about gender.
Sandberg’s book tells her story and provides her advice. Our Lean In Circle allows all of us to tell our own stories, so that each of us can take what we want from each others’ experiences. But more than just providing a forum for women to support and validate one another, it provides a space where we can learn together what social science research has to say about how gender and gender bias affect individuals and organizations, and what we can do about it individually and as leaders in our organizations.
Do I think Lean In circles are the answer to sexism and gender bias in the workplace? Nope. But I do know that for the women in my Lean In circle, having a supportive network where we can discuss our own diverse goals and how gender affects our ability to reach them is very much appreciated. And having the enthusiastic support of senior leadership to do this is incredibly powerful.
We have 14 women in our initial group, and every one of them is excited and grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of this. We also have dozens more men and women who want to participate in subsequent groups. Sheryl Sandberg certainly didn’t invent the idea of women and our male allies forming supportive networks, but at this moment in time she has sparked a renewed interest in it and support for it. And despite (or maybe because of) my concerns that Lean In misses lots of marks; I’m not willing to pass up this chance to facilitate just such a group with some of the awesome colleagues I have at the Stanford Libraries. And that is why, with all kinds of conflicting, complicated thoughts and feelings about it, I’m willing to Lean In with my colleagues and see what we can accomplish.