Sheryl Sandberg, an American technology executive, activist, and author, posed a question to over one million readers in her celebrated novel, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
As the current chief operating officer of Facebook and its first female board member, Sandberg has the unique perspective of being an accomplished, intelligent, business-savvy woman in an environment that is often dominated by and tailored to men by societal assumption.
News sources such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and Forbes have cited Sandberg as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business,” “50 Most Influential People on the Web,” and “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Each of her many achievements, however, would not have been possible had she not overcome obstacles along the way—many of which are rooted in the wider social issue of gender inequality in higher-level leadership.
The Lean In Campus Chapter at Boston College seeks to bring Sanberg’s obstacles to light by calling attention to gender gap issues. Founded and led by co-presidents Lily Peng, A&S ’17, and Bernice Choi, A&S ’15, BC’s new organization is a reaction to and call for open dialogue regarding the ways in which men and women work together in both the public and private spheres.
Advocating for the power of peer support, Lean In circles encourage small-group-based discussion as a means to learn, listen, and lead. Composed of eight members and two moderators each, Lean In circles are organized so that participants are often in similar stages of life—and/or have similar goals to achieve—and meet 10 times per academic year for about an hour to two hours each time.
The goal of Lean In circles is to have discussions based not only on gender inequality, but also on leadership skills. The moderators will follow guides and materials that are provided by LeanIn.org, the Lean In Foundation, which range from topics like “influence and negotiation” to “how to own the room.”
“‘Discussion groups’ have a dry connotation that does not align with Lean In’s dynamic approach,” Peng said. She described Lean In circles as peer-support discussion groups, believing that this more accurately reflects the organization’s focus on sharing stories and developing strong networks.
With more than 20,000 circles established in 73 countries around the world, the Lean In movement is flourishing on thousands of college campuses. Not only does it aim to further the reach, influence, and acceptance of women in higher-level management positions, but it also strives to serve as a conversation haven for all things related to gender issues for both men and women alike.
Particularly drawn to Sandberg’s frank account of her experience working in a predominantly male industry, Peng and Choi believe Lean In offers an insightful glimpse into the gender dynamics at play in today’s working world. With women-centered groups increasing in number and interest, the two believed that Lean In would will be a valuable addition to the BC community because it is focused on openly discussing gender issues as they relate to public and private life.
Upon reflecting on female leadership within BC clubs and organizations, Peng noted that female leaders are few and far between. While women predictably lead many women-focused groups, there appears to be a sizable gap when one analyzes leadership within clubs relating to pre-professional and political interests. She contends that this reluctance to speak up and get involved not only affects activities outside of the classroom, but within them, as well.
“I notice this disparity even in my economics classes, in which the male students frequently answer questions with confidence and are generally more outspoken than my female peers,” Peng said.
Although a personal perspective on a smaller scale, Peng and Choi assert that instances such as this point to a societal reluctance for women to participate in and contribute actively to stereotypically male spheres.
One of the major inspirations Peng and Choi credit for bringing Lean In to campus is the organization’s focus on women leadership in industries that they’ve historically been “unfit for.” A certain level of confidence and self-assuredness is required of any person, male or female, to enter a realm in which his or her inferiority has been predetermined for him or her before arrival.
Given the well-known statistic that women reportedly leave BC with a lower sense of self-esteem than when they began, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental impediment preventing women’s transition into leadership roles.
Peng and Choi believe that the hookup culture at the University and on college campuses everywhere is another instance in which gender inequality is at work. Peng believes that individuals’ personal lives affect their professional ones.
“It is imperative that the double standards inherent in the hookup culture are scrutinized, dismantled, and brought to light,” she said.
The pair envisions Lean In circles to be an open space in which conversations such as these are encouraged and open for discussion. The circles are designed to be confidential and supportive, which is why members within each circle remain the same throughout the duration of the program.
Since college is often the stepping-stone into the working world, Peng believes that now is the time for women to start having these discussions.
“College campuses are where the gender gap and the confidence gap start,” she said. “So, if we can target it now, then I think it will help us enter the workforce.”
In light of recent events, Choi referenced Emma Watson’s “HeForShe” campaign speech, which aimed to galvanize one billion men and boys to become advocates for and activists in ending the inequalities that women and girls face globally.
As the newly elected United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador, Watson, like Peng and Choi, wants to do away with the “us vs. them” mentality that has persisted, and instead replace it with a “we” mindset that is centered on unity for a common cause that affects sisters, mothers, friends, and significant others.
The addition of Lean In to the BC community is an invitation to everyone, both men and women alike. Peng and Choi believe it is an opportunity to envision a future where higher-level leadership and management is not assumed to be a suit, but can be a dress or skirt, too.
Featured Image Courtesy of Lily Peng