ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — No glass ceilings have shattered, but after a year of leaning in, New Mexico women say building their confidence and courage has led to promotions and raises.
Metro area Lean In Circle groups, about six so far, are part of an international movement of more than 18,000 Circles in 72 countries fostered by the success of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”
Sandberg’s manifesto encourages women to pursue success in their careers, by relying on themselves and each other, despite a still-uneven playing field for men and women.
The book has become a catalyst for conversation and change, but it’s not without criticism. Detractors say telling women to work harder doesn’t address work-life balance issues, and they call Sandberg, a millionaire with many privileges, an elitist.
Despite criticism, Sandberg told The Associated Press she’s thrilled with the success of Lean In Circles. “What I would add now is the importance of supporting each other as we ‘lean in.’ I think what all these Lean In Circles speak to, and what we suspected but didn’t know, is how important it is to surround yourself with peers and make an explicit commitment to figuring out what your goals are, and going for it.”
Some women like Annemarie Ciepiela Henton, 30, a public relations strategist, belongs to two Circle groups, one where she works at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, ASRT, and another with a group of peers in similar stages in their careers.
“It’s really a great resource that helps women break through barriers that exist because of both external factors, like societal gender norms, and internal factors, like insecurities and fears, to become more effective in the workplace and more fulfilled personally,” Henton explains.
She credits the groups with helping her. “Participating in Lean In has helped me build confidence, gain leadership experience and learn new things. For example, in the past 12 months, I was promoted at work, became president of the New Mexico Public Relations Society of America and started taking guitar lessons.”
Erin Muffoletto, director of business advocacy and leadership for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and a member of Henton’s outside peer group, says support and career ideas from her peers in the circle helped her find a full-time job: “I did start a new job and received a promotion and raise within three months of starting the job.”
How it works
A typical circle meeting begins with choosing a topic among those suggested at leanin.org. For example, in each of Henton’s groups, one with 10 and the other 11 members, the women discuss how the topic relates to them, with examples of how they have succeeded or faced a challenge with similar situations.
For example, in her work group, Henton recalls she was having trouble getting her coworkers, both men and women, to buy into a social media plan she developed, but after examining and changing her presentation style with the help of feedback from both groups, the project was launched.
“I got the idea that they were not listening and not interested,” she says. “Then I was able to engage them by being assertive,” she says, explaining she made a presentation and ended it by requiring individuals in the group to agree to it or disagree.
In Henton’s peer circle, “The participants in the group are able to transition Sheryl Sandberg’s advice into reality,” says member Justine Deshayes, a vice president at Wells Fargo Bank.
She says she’s in it for the sharing. “The women in our Circle have diverse backgrounds, work in diverse industries and most important, offer diverse viewpoints. The smaller size peer group allows me to communicate openly and honestly with a clear understanding that everything that’s discussed is confidential.”
Ceela McElveny, 49, chief communications and membership officer and one of Henton’s bosses at ASRT, says anyone could benefit from a Circle, because it helps people identify where those gender stereotypes still exist in their workplaces and in themselves.
According to research from Sandberg’s book, the same behavior in men that’s labeled assertive is called aggressive in women and questions from men become arguments if women ask them. Confidence in men gets called arrogance in women.
In May last year McElveny created the first Circles group with 14 women in management positions after reading Sandberg’s book, watching her TED talk and exploring the resources at leanin.org.
“Women face societal and cultural barriers that prevent them from contributing their knowledge, ideas and expertise in the workplace,” she says. “I thought those battles had been fought generations ago, by our mothers and grandmothers. But the more I read, the more I realized women still face biases and stereotypes that keep them from reaching their full career potential.”
If she had access to a Lean In group earlier in her career – she’s been with ASRT 21 years and has worked full-time since she was 17 – she may have had more courage to express her ideas, without regard for criticism.
“If I’d had access to something like a Lean In Circle when I was younger, it might have given me more confidence. I might have pursued promotions and raises instead of waiting for them to be offered, fought harder for my ideas instead of agreeing with the group so I’d be viewed as a team player and taken more risks instead of being worried about failing,” she says.
“No matter how women choose to lead, they are often perceived as ‘never quite right,'” she says. “Women are just as responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes as men are. To eliminate these biases, we first must become aware of them. The Lean In Circle has had a positive impact on our business operations by giving women the tools to be better communicators, negotiators and decision makers.”
How awareness builds
One of the group’s participants, Barbara Whitefield, a master’s level technologist and director of continuing education, says the group’s objective isn’t to lay blame for gender inequalities, but to develop awareness.
“What I appreciate is the awareness of issues around the different styles of leadership and behaviors of women versus men. The intent isn’t to place blame on one or the other, but talk about challenges and biases. We discuss ways to help improve perceptions, behaviors and how we can support each other in our careers.”
McElveny led a recent Lean In Circle at the ASRT offices on East Central during a lunch hour around a conference table where they discussed getting and giving feedback after watching a video from leanin.org.
The women shared their wisdom and experiences, from how to confess when you make a mistake without wallowing in shame to how to handle unfounded criticism. They admitted to crying, feeling cornered and getting so angry they left the room. They discussed how to get their heads and hearts in the right place before entering into a charged conversation when they had to deliver unwelcome news.
The trust the women have built during the past year is one of the greatest benefits of the group, says art director Julie James-Griego. “We support each other. It’s a good thing to see women supporting women. It’s a shift in a positive direction.”
She says she has also learned strategies to make sure she communicates effectively and is heard at meetings.
“We have a stronger network now,” McElveny says, adding that even outside the Circle group they advocate for each other. They also help each other refrain from speaking negatively about themselves or their efforts.
Kathi Schroeder, communications director, says even though she’s been recently hired, the group helped her get to know the women she worked with quickly. “It’s sad we’re still dealing with these issues (of gender inequality), but I’ve come to know these people. There are good people in this organization.”