At the second of two meetings Sheryl Sandberg had in Minneapolis earlier this month with readers and fans of her recent book, a few members of a critical audience were present: teenage girls.
One of them was Sarah Borntrager, 16, who listened closely as Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., encouraged a group of female military officers and federal staffers to “lean in,” the admonition that became the title of her best-seller, which sparked a renewed national conversation on women and workplace issues.
Borntrager, a junior at Farmington (Minn.) High School and daughter of a woman who is a civilian Air Force financial analyst, said girls too often lean back.
“I see that actually a lot in high school,” she said. “Someone who tries to make a stand for something, a girl, will be seen as obnoxious, as if she just keeps rambling, but a guy will be able to get his point across and be listened to. It’s something that shouldn’t be.”
Sandberg gave a keynote speech at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the nation’s largest annual conference of women in high-tech. The night before her speech, she visited two of the thousands of Lean In circles that have sprung up since her book was released in March. Nearly 300,000 people have registered their support on Facebook for the Lean In Foundation, which receives all proceeds from sales of the book. About 9,000 circles have registered, and many more are active but unregistered.
Linda Brandt, a public health specialist for Hennepin County, Minn., describes her circle as “Girl Scouts for adults,” and she hosts a group of about 30 at her home in southeast Minneapolis.
The women – ranging from photographers to dancers to librarians to advertising professionals – packed into Brandt’s living room waiting for Sandberg to arrive. Among them was Sandberg’s mother-in-law, Paula Goldberg, executive director of PACER, an anti-bullying group that advocates for children and young adults with disabilities.
When the black Chevrolet Tahoe pulled up to the front of Brandt’s home, the doors popped open and Sandberg beamed as she started meeting the women. “Oh my God, this is so exciting!” she said.
Sandberg makes an economic case for the Lean In movement, and she likes to bring up Japan, a country with one of the lowest rates of workforce participation by women. Japanese women often stop working when they have a child, and Goldman Sachs projects the Japanese economy could be 15 percent bigger if 8 million more women worked.
“Japan’s GDP cannot grow unless they get more women in the workforce,” Sandberg said. “In two decades, three decades, the U.S. could face the same problem.”
In order to continue to grow, the United States will need the full participation of the workforce, she said, which will require women to step up and their partners to split the work at home, something that she said is still not happening enough. When it comes to particular firms, any company with strong female leadership has a competitive advantage over those who do not, she said.
“This is about our economic growth,” Sandberg said.
One criticism the superstar Facebook executive has taken since publication of the book is that she’s part of the elite. She went to Harvard, was mentored by former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and after perfectly timing her transition from Washington to Silicon Valley, became extremely wealthy.
Anna Picchetti, a project manager, said the group at Brandt’s home helps rebut that criticism. The group is racially, demographically and professionally diverse, and the women live in a place that has been rated by Intuit as the fifth-best city in the U.S. for female entrepreneurs. The fact that the group is not elite, yet draws powerful inspiration from Sandberg, lends a certain grass-roots credibility to the Lean In movement, she said.
“It’s not just a corporate movement, it’s a movement for anyone who wants to lean in to their life, their job, their whatever, and I think this group, thanks to Linda, is a really good representation of that,” Picchetti said.
The circles can serve whatever purpose the women want, Sandberg said. They’re modeled on microcredit circles and book clubs. “Book clubs with a purpose,” she said.
Even in the same occupations, women only earn 93 cents for every dollar men earn, and across the population, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, partly because women tend to choose lower-paying professions. A big part of what explains both discrepancies and the lack of female leadership in the world’s biggest companies is that women too often fail to display self-confidence. The result, Sandberg said: “Women are just as much a part of gender bias.”