Lean In? Is Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In even for us? Who is it for, then? How does a Lean In Circle work, practically? On a mild Sunday in March, we attempt to find out.

"/> What Happens When Smith Girls "Lean In"? — The Airship
By Emily Morris
Our table at Chinatown's 169 Bar, where surely many epic feminist discussions have taken place in between go-go dances.

Our table at Chinatown's 169 Bar, where surely many epic feminist discussions have taken place in between go-go dances.

Some of us refer to ourselves as Smithies, some of us Smith women. At this point in my life I am most comfortable with Smith girl. Upon graduating from Smith College in 2012, I inherited an invaluable network of women, an “old girls' club” that mimics the staid traditions of Yale and Harvard and Dartmouth men, one that extends to all corners of the world and is available to me whenever I need it. 

I wasn't a SWG (Study of Women and Gender) major, but as an English major, feminism still informed most aspects of my studies. I don't hesitate to say that I feel that I benefited from the best undergraduate education in feminism a person could possibly receive, simply by attending my classes, and living my life, alongside such a sharp, interesting group of women.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a memoir-cum-business-bible that has gotten no small share of press over the last few weeks, immediately reminded me of the consciousness-raising movements of the 1970s and indeed, the essence of my entire Smith experience: that women should take time to talk about being women, on purpose. I was struck by the ease and speed with which Sandberg has been able to export, disseminate, and promote that idea.

But the idea of Lean Ins, with all their trademark-able capitalized phrases, seemed unnecessarily (and perhaps distastefully) corporate, to me. With the website in place, and whether or not you take advantage of the prepared social networking aspect—you may organize your Circle by utilizing the privately owned service Mightybell—people do not have to buy the book to be able to hold Lean Ins (and it ought to be said, in my simple effort to de-monopolize the whole thing, should be able to call them whatever they want).

So what happens when you invite a bunch of recent Smith grads—my friends—to a Lean In? Is Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In even for us? Who is it for, then? How does a "Lean In Circle" work, practically? On a mild Sunday in March, we attempt to find out.

As much as I know my friends and myself to be all for the feminist cause, I still doubt their enthusiasm when it comes to showing up to things on a Sunday night.


After the event was up for an hour and only one other person had responded "Attending," I added the above disclaimer. Though secure in my feminism, I was not secure in the idea that holding a meet-up wouldn't be dorky. I felt bad, but I also didn't want to be that girl—that girl that holds a feminist meet up, I suppose. However, my friend Kendra wrote, "Emily, for the record, I totally wouldn't have judged you if your job hadn't asked you to do it." That's why I love a Smith gal.

Sunday came, and the group was not exactly as planned. Three Smithies ended up attending: my friend Cathryn and I, who both graduated in 2012, and Abby, a graduate of the class of 2007 who works in New York as a costume designer for television and film. Joining us were my friend Eli, 24, who works at Ma'yan, a feminist nonprofit, and his coworker Pippi, 28, Ma'yan's program director . A solid group of self-described feminists, we all described our relationship to feminism as “lifelong,” citing feminist parents as our first influences. We ordered pints of Blue Point IPA and kicked off this circle.

I was curious to see how the presence of Eli, a guy who is not a Smith grad (we do have a few male alumni. Hi guys!), would affect the makeup of the group. In all of the Lean In materials, which I printed from the website, the language carefully cites circle "members," keeping definitions ambiguous as to include men. Lean In's website does include video testimonials, in the form of shared stories, by men (Including, oddly, Ryan Seacrest).

Of course, Eli is not the typical guy, in that he not only identifies as a feminist but thinks about feminism all day at his place of employment. He never interrupted or mansplained throughout the night. Not that I thought he would—but those are two qualities I've noticed of well-educated men who still don't quite get what it means to be a male feminist, or worse, "prefers to call himself a humanist, instead." Let's have a slow clap for Eli, and all the men like him. You are welcome in our Lean In. (And by “our,” I mean “all women.”) As this article from The Guardian explains, part of the reason for Sandberg's ambiguously gendered language is to highlight the idea that, in the words of bell hooks, feminism is for everybody.

The invocation of bell hooks is especially pertinent. At the time of our meeting, none of us had read the book (it hadn't come out yet); we had only profiles of Sandberg, the Lean In website and Circle materials, and the dozens of skeptical blog posts to go on. We also felt the Lean In shouldn’t require a purchase of Sandberg’s book. Our group was hesitant toward Sandberg and the idea of a Lean In for the simple fact that she is an upper-middle class white woman, and assumes all the privileges inherent in those identities. Even if that socioeconomic identity is one that some of us may share, we have been taught to consider it suspect regardless.

When we began to review the Lean In materials, none of us was sure that we were the target audience. The meetings, which are supposed to be two hours long once per month, appoint a Circle Manager, who organizes everyone and schedules meetings, and Circle Facilitator, who directs the conversation during the time devoted to sharing personal stories. Those are dubbed “Exploration” meetings, which trade off with “Education” meetings, where members are encouraged to learn a new skill that applies to the workplace. With topics like “Power and Influence,” “Negotiation,” and “Team Dynamics,” the suggested discussions are geared toward women working in the corporate sphere. (The site does allow straying from the structure, noting that “We encourage you to decide what works for your group. If you prefer structure, our Circle Kits include everything you need to run a successful Circle.”)

With these topics in place as some of the tenets of the proposed movement, the question of the corporate-ness of the entire Lean In movement also came up—the organization has partnered with Amazon and Bank of America, among other large corporations whose ethics have come into question in the (recent) past.

Eli: [The idea of a Lean In] does seem explicitly corporate, but there is so little in our culture about women supporting one another that [the corporate concern] seems [secondary]. It could be subversive in the ways that people use it as a tool.
Cathryn: You gotta start somewhere.
Emily: It seems like that is said a lot, though, with feminism.
Pippi: There seems to be a lot of talk about individual effort—that a woman has to change herself to succeed within the system. Which I don't think is necessarily damaging unless that implies that [all women are able to do that equally].

Prompted by our collective unfamiliarity with a corporate experience, I asked Cathryn, who majored in  Psychology and Religion but currently works as a nanny in Brooklyn, “What about you? Do you want to be a power bitch? Wear a suit?” I meant it to be an offhand remark, but the 'b' word came out thickly and I felt ashamed for using it in this setting. After hearing myself recorded saying it, I decided to be more mindful of using it from now on. A small, concrete victory borne of a Lean In circle, to be sure.

None of us in the group has much experience in the corporate world. Since Pippi and Eli work for a feminist organization, they had little to contribute in terms of workplace discrimination. But I asked Pippi, who graduated Harvard in 2006, if she had faced any discrimination or had to grapple with any of the issues Lean In brings up, in her previous jobs. She did have this to say about her alma mater.

Pippi: My first year, my roommate and I went to a meeting for a pro-choice organization on campus, and no one was there. The person who ran it and us—three people showed up. [Harvard is still] really old-fashioned... There are a lot of woman there that are … the president of some club…[and] a lot of them would talk about it like this is proof that there is no sexism. I've talked to some people who are like, ‘My parents are immigrants and I'm here so that means there is no discrimination.’ That story is [very] American. The idea that whatever happens to you is your own.

Earlier in the discussion, I'd asked if our generation needed Lean In, us who have grown up with more working mothers than any generation before, all of us self-described “lifelong” feminists. Cathryn's reply was, “I think you're overestimating how informed our generation is on feminism.” I suppose so.

Pippi's point, an example of individualism used as an opposition to feminism, actually aligns completely with one tenet of Lean In, which is that women have the ability to change the workplace landscape for women by starting with themselves. As Nisha Chittal from Ms. puts it, “the power of Sandberg’s message lies in the fact that personal career success is not entirely reliant on waiting for the system to change, which could take years: it empowers women to begin changing their own lives right now.”

It occurs to me that the people who influence Congress—the lobbyists, the fundraisers, the keepers of the million dollar donations—largely come from men in powerful positions. The more women who are heads of Fortune 500 companies (currently a paltry 4%), the more our interests as women (including fair, paid maternity and paternity leave, something that is central to the book but foreign to me and the rest of the group) are represented to those politicians. If women with corporate power translates to women with political influence, I can't take issue with that.


Abby's discussion of her work as a freelance costume designer was one of the most enlightening parts of the conversation, for me, if only to hear a concrete example of another women's career experience—something we hadn't quite gotten to yet in our Lean In experiment.

Abby: I, unfortunately, work... in a 'boys club.' And because of what I do, and because there is a union—once you’re unionized you’re protected in a sense but you have to make a minimum amount. [Speaking as] someone who is at my level and is not in the union [I] have to [say], ‘alright, this is what you're paying me everyday,’ and I can’t really negotiate it much... Money is such a tricky thing to handle. If you offer to do a job for less, it means you will get the job.

Emily: What do you mean by “boys club”? I guess I would just assume—

Abby: I mean [that] costume design is a field of predominantly women.  However, we're always working with directors and producers, and those people tend to be men... Those are the people who control the money and the overall vibe. If you look at the statistics in film at the Academy Awards this year, 30 of them went to men and only 9 of them went to women... Costume design is also seen as this feminine craft and we make a third less of what production designers make, [who are] usually men. I don't even know how much less paid they are than directors, but it's a lot. So one of the things I'm trying to do within my own field is to elevate my craft and have it taken seriously. It's not “just for ladies,” [even if we are often some of the only women on set besides actresses].

Emily: Or not just a hobby. Your experience is very applicable to this format. I'm wondering do you have a lot of friends in the same industry; do you talk about these things amongst each other?

Abby: Yes. This is particularly interesting to me in doing something like this for women…[Leaning in] is a way for women to band together in a male-dominated [field] and work with each other… gain more respect for each other, gain better salaries.

As a costume designer, Abby isn't necessarily “corporate,” either, but her experiences highlighted here are in line with the same issues brought up by Lean In. Though the capitalistic, corporate nature of the project irks me because I was taught to view corporations as profit machines, not as feminist icons, I also see Lean In circles as a way for corporations to balance themselves out, if it's utilized as a union. If a Lean In circle were organized within, say, a medium-sized engineering firm, and all of the women employees banded together, they would have the power of negotiation, even though they may be federally prevented from discussing the exact amount of their salaries directly with each other.

Though our group didn't necessarily jibe with the stacks of Lean In paperwork, it would be excellent documentation for a group that needed more rights in their place of employment. It would only require a look through the materials provided on the website, and someone dedicated to organizing for her own community.

* * *

At the end of the night, our pints were low and our brains were buzzing. Though we'd raised more questions than answers, we agreed that we were glad to have set aside time to discuss women, and feminism, even if that was the only structure we wanted in place. Personally, any hesitancy I had about Sandberg's effectiveness or her place of privilege were eclipsed by the idea that this format can be adapted to any group. A group of nurses, a group of social workers, a group of female electricians, any group of women within a male-dominated company-- they can all utilize the idea of sharing with each other in order to spur personal and professional growth. Sheryl Sandberg comes from a place of power, so she speaks to women of power—but she also promotes power, for all women. Sandberg is the product of our consciousness-raising foremothers, but with business savvy. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Before Abby left, we urged her to think about working on a book her mom started about Second Wave feminism, which she proposed to be in dialogue with herself, a new generation of feminists. Pippi and Eli asked us to keep in touch for help with a new work project—creating “Feminist Care Packages” to send to budding feminists in high school and college. There was a sense of energy, and purpose, and though we had not solved anything we had done what Lean In and Sheryl Sandberg urged us to do—share. And share in person, at that.