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What Happened When I Tried To Start A Lean In Circle At My Office

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I was naive. Before I experienced overt sexism from both men and women in the workplace, I wasn’t prepared for the possibility that women would work — and work hard — to cut each other down.

I wasn’t prepared for the possibility that the women in my office — and the men, too — would not only not support me, but that they would work against me and the other women I worked with. I should have been. I recognize the privilege inherent in not being prepared.

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It started with the best of intentions. I had recently begun working at an office where I saw a lot of unhealthy power dynamics at play. Women who were higher up were disempowering, and even bullying, other women. Cutting them off in meetings. Speaking over them in conversations. “You’re so... dumb,” these power plays implied. “Leave this stuff to the smart people.” And the gossip. Like a constant toxic breeze through the hallways, the gossip never stopped.

I’ve never been able to stand to sit idly by while anyone is being bullied. It’s not my nature. What could I do about this? How could I change things? What were my resources?

I started researching women’s groups. It wasn’t long before I came across Lean In circles — circles of women inside a company that promote "leaning in."

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was written by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Inspired by the book, a series of groups developed; they meet regularly to apply the principles of “leaning in”: sitting at the table, not holding ourselves back from our careers, and seeking challenges and pursuing career ambitions. Participants can expect to receive peer support, to share strategies with each other, and to brainstorm ways to improve their professional and personal lives. The theory is that an entire company (and perhaps, on a larger scale, the world) benefits when we empower the women in our lives. There are about 33,000 Lean In circles in over 150 countries. 85% of members credit their joining a circle with a positive change in their lives.

It turns out, for leaning in to work, you need more than one girl with a little bit of moxie. 

That all sounded great to me. I could help start a conversation about empowerment. I could lean in. Lean In has work to do in terms of empowerment and white feminism, but it provided a solid curriculum – a jumping off place.

It turns out, for leaning in to work, you need more than one girl with a little bit of moxie. You need a lot of people, with a lot of moxie, who actually care about why leaning in matters. But we’ll get to that. Why was it impossible for me to not only lean in at this place, but barely get an elbow on the table?

*note: I was working with a co-worker, but for her privacy I will not include her in this story

I drafted a proposal and brought it to the head of HR at the company. The intention was to demonstrate the value of having a Lean In circle at the office: How, by having this group, we could be more valuable team members to our departments, better employees, stronger assets.

No sooner had I given my proposal and said that this could be a way to empower the women at our workplace, than the head of HR, a VP at the company, held up her hand in a literal “stop” gesture: "This company empowers everyone. Not just women."

It felt like a privileged slap in the face. Like saying, “All lives matter.” Which, of course. Obviously. But, in both cases, there is demonstrable evidence that women and people of color are overwhelmingly disempowered compared to their male and white, and white male, counterparts. And in this specific instance, right now, we need to empower women, because we’re getting talked over in meetings, we’re not getting promoted or paid equally, and forget about any kind of maternity leave.

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From there on, the meeting was about the women of the company should feel supported because one of the partners is a woman. Duh. Plus, we worked with women! How could we feel anything but empowered? What was this group going to do, anyway? Empower female employees to ask for more money, stand up for themselves, be better negotiators? And we wanted our employer to sponsor that? The implication was that I was stupid for even asking — how dare I suggest that people be informed that they could ask for more.

And, if this group was going to be on company time, it wasn’t going to be like one of those fun corporate bonding activities, like company-wide bingo or bowling or wine tasting.Those we could bill as company time. But since this would not be sanctioned by the company, I was told we could bill it to “lunch” – in other words, it came out of our pockets.

I was also told that, previously, a women's group had been attempted, but several issues had occurred that shut it down.

One reason that the previous women’s group ended was that a man had tried to attend the meeting. The (female) partner (that so empowered all female employees) stood at the door and told him, "No vagina, no entry."

When I heard this, I was appalled. I said that it was my intention that any person who identified as a woman was welcome in this group. I wanted to have shared meetings with men where we could share strategies and skills.

She said that they didn’t even know what that meant, and she’d need that wording adjusted on the proposal. And also: What if the men wanted meetings, too? What about the men’s empowerment? How would the men feel?

said of course men could have meetings. They should feel welcome to create a group, and, as I said, join the Lean In Circle for occasional meetings. But, again, men aren’t the ones who are historically and demonstrably marginalized. They’re not the ones being disempowered and disenfranchised. Historically, people only care about how the men feel.

The meeting ended with me feeling like I had proposed burning bras and going on a mass strike – not empowering the people in my office. I left, deflated and confused, to rework the proposal.

And then the subtle bullying started.

It was brought to my attention through allies higher up on the corporate food chain that emails had been sent to my managers: X came to HR today to talk about starting a Lean In Circle. If she mentions it, here’s how to shut it down. Tell her that she should feel supported because [partner] is a woman and there are so many women in management positions. Don’t encourage this.

What if the men wanted meetings, too? What about the men’s empowerment? How would the men feel?

Emails to managers or comments to me that said that it was noticed when I was away from my desk or, hey, you’ve been working from home more often lately. Not a big deal, of course – but it was noticed.

I took the group offline and communicated only by text message and personal email, for weeks. It eventually fizzled out because HR kept requesting meetings with members of the group that “just happened” to check on the status of the group — although “of course” it was none of their business, since it was off company time and property.

Of course.

It was insidious targeting that we couldn’t quite call out, but it was very real in that it made my, and other women in the group’s workdays difficult to get through.

It didn’t help that the HR person, again, a VP, claimed to have “her own brand of HR” that meant she didn’t have to keep things confidential and openly shared anything that was discussed with her — creating an office environment akin to Mean Girls, but with people’s careers, and possibly the ability to provide for ourselves and our families, on the line. No one was spared, even if they thought they were close friends with her.

I ended up leaving that company shortly after this experience. Soon after, others followed. Still others kept in touch, sharing stories of managers that terrorized them and regularly reduced them to tears. It’s not easy to leave a job, and it’s often not possible – and the managers (many managers and bosses) know this – and they use it. Where else will you go, in this job market? You get trapped. And then you’re so tired, so emotionally exhausted from your day, that it’s nearly impossible to apply for other jobs, after work.

It becomes a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.

I began applying for other positions during the weekends. I had to get out. Through a mutual connection, I found a job that was better in a lot of ways. Most importantly, it didn’t require me to sacrifice my self-respect so that I could feed my family.

No one should have to make that sacrifice. And no company should play that card.

Companies, and co-workers, should treat each other with respect and consideration. That shouldn’t be a bonus – it should be an expectation. They should listen to each other and encourage each other’s thoughts and ideas.

They should promote leaning in.

Top image: Mad Men (AMC)

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