Women forming ‘Lean In’ circles

Franne McNeal (standing at right) and organizer Mary Dove (standing at left) address a “Lean In” meeting in New York last month. The group is inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In,” which seeks to empower women in the workplace.

Galo Delgado

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 last month.

“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 up recently in response to an open invitation on LinkedIn from Mary Dove, a New York psychotherapist.

Many, though not all, of the attendees had read “Lean In,” which came out to a burst of publicity, blockbuster sales and controversy. Was Sandberg, as some 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 columnist wrote, the “latest salvo in the war on moms?”

Not surprisingly, the women at the New York meeting were fans, 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. 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.

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 Palo Alto, Calif-based LeanIn.org, describes the circles: “A book club with a purpose.”

“It’s all about practical support,” Thomas says. “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 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.

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.

Responding to a social network query, Brandt quickly amassed a group of 30, a combination of friends, professional acquaintances, the woman who watches her dog, a neighbor down the street, and people she’s never met. The group is diverse in both age and economic background.

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.