By Hannah Kates
BY HANNAH KATES
A look into Lean In at Harvard.
This past Thursday, members of Lean In at Harvard invited the Harvard community to ‘Sit at the Table’ and watch a 45-minute video presentation by Cheryl Sandberg at the club’s first informational meeting of the year. The event, one of many “watch parties” worldwide, boasted free food — platters of salad and Diet Pepsi — and a forty-five-minute informational/inspirational video about Lean In Circles. Thought up by Sandberg, the author of the book with the same name, these circles are groups of about ten people that discuss relevant issues and “empower each other to achieve their ambitions.” Currently, there are more than twenty thousand circles in seventy-three countries and on three hundred fifty campuses. This much enthusiastic participation is in itself an indication that the circles are effective. Harvard was the first university involved in the Lean In on Campus initiative, and this is its second semester of hosting circles. After about ten minutes of a pre-movie soundtrack including Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” — a “girl power thing,” a club member explained — the club’s founder, Mirta Stantic ‘15, its treasurer, and various other leaders introduced themselves to about twenty spectators scattered throughout the Fong auditorium.
Once the video began, Cheryl Sandberg thanked the men in the room for attending, quoting Gloria Steinem in saying that “when the inevitable revolution happens and you’re a man who’s been to one of these events, you get a free pass.” leanin.org was founded, she continued, because the world is still run by men. Modern-day tragedies — the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — are an example of the “problem of leadership” in today’s world, a problem that would be remedied by leaders that “nurture as well as lead.” Women need to “own [their] own success,” rather than constantly attribute their successes to others’ help, so they can be part of making decisions.” They also need to be firmly convicted that they can have both families and careers. One of Lean In’s goals is to convert the way the world thinks about women — from, for example, considering them ‘bossy, aggressive, and too ambitious’ to appreciating their executive leadership skills. The generation currently in its twenties, Sandberg emphasized, is the one that can create real change in the world, and universities play a huge role in many types of activism.
Rachel Thomas, the president of leanin.org, explained the purpose and impact of circles. Because people are often more effective in groups where they are “challenged on one hand” and “supported on the other,” these “small peer groups that learn and grow together” can empower women to step outside their comfort zones and realize their ambitions. The Lean In website offers an interactive dashboard, a moderator checklist, a search feature that searches for circles in various discussion modules, and contact information for students who have run successful circles and can act as coaches. One such module emphasizes the importance of body language, revealing that even once people are well-acquainted, they judge competence based only 7% on what a person says and 55% on his/her body language. There is no structured order to the modules, and enough are being added to the site that, for the time being, no topic will be repeated.
Two college students then spoke about their experiences as coaches and as instigators of change at their universities and in their own lives. Amanda Russo, a student at University of Wisconsin – Madison, was watching this video presentation with her friends at this time last year. Her school now hosts seven circles, and two hundred fifty students signed up for circles at this year’s activities fair. “They keep me accountable,” she said of her fellow circle members. Furthermore, her “A year ago I never thought I’d be here, but I am,” she said, “because I did what I’m afraid of.” Amanda’s favorite thing about her circle is its diversity – a variety of majors, ages, and personalities are represented. That it is comprised of her peers is also conducive to easy conversation – discussing these issues with older adults can be intimidating. Danielle Noel, a student at the George Washington University, said that discussions in Circles are “an effective way to talk about gender equity issues.” Lean In’s initiatives, she said, provide a great avenue by which to “change the dialogue” about feminism, especially in a culture that has given the word ‘feminism’ so much weight.
A member of the studio audience asked what role men can play; the two coaches replied that men “are in a position of power,” and that dialogue is “much more effective with men in it.” “No one talks to men about gender,” added Amanda, and especially at the U.S. military academies, men’s involvement in Circles has transformed their comfort level with this subject matter.
Stantic paused the video a few minutes into the Q&A session to talk specifically about Harvard’s Lean In initiative, which had 180 registered members and sixteen circles last year during its inaugural semester. Stantic actually hopes for slightly fewer this semester — about 100 to 120, with eight “legit, active” circles including a Quad circle, a freshman circle, and the only computer science Circle in the world, among others. Initially, the circles were made to be as diverse as possible, but Stantic has realized that they are more effective when members share some set of common experiences and can discuss common struggles in a particular setting. As a result, this year’s circles have some theme — a concentration, a location, or a year (there is a freshman circle and a senior circle).
Lean In at Harvard didn’t exist one year ago. Last September, Stantic was busy translating Lean In, Sandberg’s book, into Croatian. She received a thank-you email from Sandberg herself when the translation was finished and, acting on a whim, she replied to that email asking if Sandberg would like to grab lunch a few days later when Stantic, coincidentally, would be in San Francisco. The two ended up eating lunch together and discussing how to start topical events and dialogues at Harvard. This is how Harvard became the first campus involved with Lean In Org. Mirta Stantic and Cheryl Sandberg still correspond via email.
This year, Stantic wants to enrich the circles by encouraging inter-circle discussion, so that members of the organization can benefit from its diversity of mindsets while retaining a core discussion group with a shared interest. She hopes that events including a speaker series will achieve this end. She is also corresponding with a number of corporate sponsors, and with a neighborhood school where she hopes to begin a mentorship program with sixth- and seventh-graders. Though Stantic will graduate soon, the initiative she started seems to have years of success ahead of it.
Hannah Kates ’18 (hkates@college) is inspired by the incredible leadership she’s witnessed at Harvard.