Sandberg’s Lean In circles: 7,000 plus and growing

In Mexico, says marketing executive Ana Falcon, employers often assume that women like her, in their childbearing years, aren’t going to last too long in the job — that they’re going to quickly Lean Back, rather than Lean In.

“They just think you’re going to have kids and leave right away,” says Falcon, 26.

And so, she’s working to form a Lean In circle, or small empowerment group, in her home city of Monterrey. Meantime, she’s also part of a virtual Lean In circle with women in other countries. They call it the Lonely Whale circle.

“The name refers to a whale who feels no one can hear it,” Falcon says. “But we found each other. It’s really helpful to compare strategies, to talk about handling pressure. The good thing is, no matter how old you are, no matter where you live, you can relate to women everywhere.”

It’s been nearly five months since Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” a manifesto for working women, was published, shooting to the top of best-seller lists with its mix of practical advice, pep talks, research and amusing anecdotes from one of the most successful businesswomen in the world.

The book met its share of skepticism — including from people who hadn’t had the chance to read it yet — but that clearly didn’t hurt sales. The Lean In Foundation, which gets all the proceeds, recently announced that more than 1 million books have been sold in 11 languages, and it will be published in at least 19 more by the end of 2014.

On top of that, five months after the book urged women to form “Lean In” empowerment circles, some 7,000 of those circles have been formed, the foundation announced — in all 50 states and at least 50 countries. And that’s only counting groups that have registered.

“We believe that’s only a fraction of the total number of circles, because many are forming without telling us,” says Rachel Thomas, president of the foundation. “We’re thrilled.”

And how about Sandberg, who started it all?

“I think we’ve all been pleasantly surprised — it’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” the author said in a recent interview, speaking on the telephone from her California home while supervising her two young children and their cousins.

“I wrote this book because I wanted to have a conversation,” she said. “The issue of ambition in women is complicated, in a way that it is not for men.”

“This wasn’t about a book,” she added. “If you’re me, you can imagine no one would read it. I’m not an author. But we’ve had emails and letters pouring in: Women are asking for raises. Circles are forming. People are watching the lectures on the website and taking action. I’ve run into CEOs who tell me, ‘You’re costing me so much money’ — from raises.”

But what about the complaint that the book wasn’t relevant to the average woman? An undercurrent in the commentary was that Sandberg, a billionaire, was hardly the typical working mom.

“Because I wrote it, a lot of people said this is only applicable to a woman of my resources,” says Sandberg. “Of course, a lot of the book was my story — I wrote it.” But Lean In, she says, “is about ANY ambition you have.”

Are people getting the message? “Well, listen, there’s a lot more people to get to!” Sandberg laughs.

Some of Sandberg’s favorite Lean In success stories involve men — like the CEO who told her that he’d never realized, until her book, how many women sat on the side of rooms during meetings, not at the table. “Now it’s a rule — you sit at the table,” she said he told her.

If such enlightened male bosses aren’t always the norm in the United States, they most certainly aren’t in Mexico, says Falcon, although she takes pains to point out that her own boss is “awesome.”

“He believes in me,” she says. “He helps me push through new initiatives, and gives me all the support I need. But he’s outside the norm in Mexico.”

Falcon notes that even though Monterrey, in northeastern Mexico, is a large commercial center, there aren’t support networks for female businesswomen, like there are in Mexico City. She notes ruefully that a business journal she has just been reading — focused on young entrepreneurs — has no female voice in it.

And so Falcon is working on that Monterrey-centered circle, hopefully for September. One obstacle, she notes: The materials on the website are not in Spanish.

Meanwhile, Falcon continues with her virtual group — along with Linda Brandt, who works in public health in Minneapolis. Brandt, first interviewed by The Associated Press in the spring, may hold a Lean In record: She now participates in four circles, two in person, and two electronically.

“I have just found it a great way to network,” says Brandt, 43. “How cool, to talk to people in Mexico, for example!” She says each group has a different flavor, “but the common point is: a bit of feminism, and a bit of wanting to change ourselves in some way.”

Brandt, interviewed again last week as members were starting to ring the doorbell for their fourth meeting, said that gathering would be less focused on formal materials this time, and more on personal stories.

Also in the group is Air Force Lt. Col. Erika Cashin, 44, who joined even though she already had her own Lean In circle comprised largely of military women and federal employees.

Cashin notes that while her own group is focused on challenges specific to the federal workforce — spouses are also in the group — and how to lead as a woman, it is, in a way, more formal than the other, since she has to respect a rank structure. In Brandt’s group, “I’m freer to talk about the personal side of things,” she says.

In a military setting, some issues are less relevant — for example, salary is fixed according to rank, and therefore parity is not an issue. But others are, as in how to be a woman leader and be respected.

And another universal principle, she says, is: “It’s up to US to change what we want to change. The only person that’s going to care about your career is you.”

That’s a key theme for Sandberg: Empowering women to take the reins of their own careers. Another has to do with the word “bossy.” Why, she asks in her book and in every speech, are women called bossy, but men lauded for their leadership skills?

On this issue, she cites progress, in the form of a friend of a friend who went to a first-grade parent-teacher conference not long ago.

“The teacher said, ‘Before, I would have called your daughter bossy,’” Sandberg recounts. “But she said she had recently read this new book, and so she wasn’t going to use that word.”

Asked about her own plans — a subject of frequent speculation — Sandberg says she has no plans to leave Facebook, where she loves her job. But her involvement with Lean In, she says, is an open-ended affair.

“I am very committed to this,” she says. “There is nothing more exciting than empowering women.”

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Online:

http://www.leanin.org

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