Back in July I heard Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, speak at a conference. I read the book recently, and I’ve been thinking long and hard about her messages.
As if Sandberg didn’t have enough notoriety as a former vice president of Google and now chief operating office of Facebook, her 2013 book generated all kinds of criticism. Sandberg wrote the book, in her words, “to encourage women to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, and achieve their full potential.” Others weren’t so generous in their descriptions: “a manifesto on women and the workplace,” full of “victim blaming.” Sandberg herself hasn’t fared much better, having been described as the “PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots reigniting the women’s revolution” or as using “her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.” To be honest, Sandberg brought a lot of the criticism on herself, starting by defining herself as “a pom-pom girl for feminism.” Really?
I could comment on her assertion that women suffer from and are limited by “the imposter syndrome” (capable people being plagued by self-doubt), or the many truisms she includes in the book (“The ability to listen is as important as the ability to speak.”) or even her ill-informed (in my opinion) conclusion that “staying quiet and fitting in may have been all the first generations of women who entered corporate American could do.” I found much to challenge in the book, and I don’t see Sandberg as a sympathetic leader for some feminist revival.
What most intrigues me about Sandberg is her vision for “lean in circles” that she promoted at the conference I attended. Not surprisingly, as soon as I heard “circles” mentioned—the mainstay of women’s ministry in our Lutheran tradition—I became curious. Sandberg’s Lean In Foundation’s website says: “Together we’re better. We are more creative, more confident and accomplish more in groups. That’s the power of Circles.” Here’s the premise: “circles are small peer groups that meet regularly to learn and share together.” A circle can meet monthly at one’s home, be a brown-bag lunch or even a virtual meet-up, the website explains. The Lean In Foundation provides agendas, discussion guides and group activities, free online lectures and more to assist each circle. Does this sound familiar?
Pardon me for sounding a bit jaundiced, but isn’t it nice that a 40-something corporate mogul who gained $821 million from Facebook shares that vested in 2012 (or approximately 274 times the annual budget of the churchwide organization of Women of the ELCA) has embraced the power of circles? I know that Lutheran women don’t have copyrighted ownership to the circle concept (after all, they’ve been around for centuries and have been used by people in all kinds of situations), but should it bother me that Sandberg and her foundation have coopted circles? Perhaps the rise of Lean In Circles will bring street cred to circles of all kinds and we’ll see a growth of Lutheran women coming together monthly in some form of circle, the focus of which is on God. And if that happens, it might just be the best thing to come from Lean In that any of us could imagine.
Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director of Women of the ELCA.