WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 14:  Karen Narasaki, left to right, Sheryl Sandberg, Janet Murguia, and Patricia Worthy, take part in the Multi-Cultural Women's Conversation with Sheryl Sandberg at the Willard InterContinental Washington on Thursday March 14, 2013 in Washington, DC.  Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and the author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead".  (Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 14: Karen Narasaki, left to right, Sheryl Sandberg, Janet Murguia, and Patricia Worthy, take part in the Multi-Cultural Women's Conversation with Sheryl Sandberg at the Willard InterContinental Washington on Thursday March 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and the author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead". (Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images) Photo: The Washington Post

Let me start by admitting I’m not a ‘joiner’ who has ever achieved much comfort or success by being part of a group.  Heck, sometimes I even struggle to get to my book club despite the heady mix of literature, booze and chocolate freckles on offer.  If Sheryl Sandberg is the CEO of ‘Leaning In’, I am probably the Queen of ‘Leaning Out’. Sometimes I lean out so far I fall over backwards.  I guess that’s why I’m at home writing in my tracky dacks and Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

Nevertheless, I have some interest in Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In Circles’ as safe, supportive, peer groups for women.   But I read with some alarm that they are already being infiltrated by blokes.

First, some background. In ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sandberg (and let’s give some sisterly kudos to her co-writer Nell Scovell) urges women to buck stereotypes about ambition and likeability, shake off their distorted sense of self-doubt, ‘sit at the table’ and ‘lean in’ to their career.  On its final page she suggests women can help each to follow those goals by joining ‘Lean In Circles’.  A special website and program has now been set up, offering a manual of how to set up groups and run them by providing strategies on everything from body language to asking for a pay rise.  The co-founder and President of LeanIn.org, Rachel Thomas describes a Lean In Circle as ‘a book club with purpose’. 

To me, they sound like having Kumbaya with kick.  But as the circles sprout they are also evolving; there are now father-daughter circles, husband and wife circles, circles on high school campuses, male Asian American circles and circles set up by men within corporate entities.   And they are spreading to Australia. There are Lean In Circles here in finance (the Commonwealth Bank has two) and more informal ones in Sydney, Bendigo, Brisbane, Melbourne and the Gold Coast.

Perhaps it’s great news that men are buying Sandberg’s book, geeking out about leaning in and starting circles in their companies.  Women still need male champions in the workplace.  After all, the blokes are, in the main, still in charge.  While Sandberg’s book has been criticised for putting women at the centre of their success (and possible failure) she does actually urge institutions to encourage, promote and champion more women.  And she’s been recently meeting with the titans of Wall Street as well as Prime Ministers and other powerful leaders around the world urging them to do just that. 

But the fact is, working towards representation of women needs top down and bottoms up approaches.   That is programs and support from the men and women at the top and support, encouragement and skills from the women at the bottom wanting to rise.  This weekend, the Sydney Morning Herald featured a story about Equal Opportunity Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick pulling in male business leaders to help women succeed.  It’s inspiring and powerful change but I’m not sure these men should take part in the Lean In Circles of the young women who are workshopping access to their jobs.  Indeed, the Lean in literature actually urges women to select a group where they’ll feel comfortable and safe discussing tricky issues. 

It may be hard to strategize against the power cliques if they are sitting opposite you with a polystyrene cup of coffee. I understand the power of having a senior male in on a discussion of roadblocks to the top but perhaps the support group is not the place.  And as for the need for corporate males to provide each other support and encouragement for career pushes and pay rises, well, the cynics would say men have it and it’s called the golf course.   Perhaps it’s preferable that the senior men who are setting up the groups then step back and be open to the graduates who emerge and the solutions they advocate.

There’s another vital area where blokes can help.  And, indeed are doing so.  In her book, Sandberg says ‘the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is’.  She urges women to look for a fully supportive partner who doesn’t see looking after his own child as ‘babysitting’ but as an equal responsibility.  A powerful way for powerful men to support women’s careers is by demonstrating that they are in fact leaning in with their families; making the personal political with every nappy change and school assembly.  As Sandberg says ‘we need more men to sit at the table… the kitchen table’.  Like her, they should leave for dinner most nights.  Especially the boss. 

The former head of Microsoft Australia, Daniel Petre, was years ahead of Sheryl Sandberg on this. He quit the job because of its insane hours and in 1998 wrote ‘Father Time’ urging men to work shorter and smarter days.  It made him deeply unpopular with his senior colleagues as he was questioning their ‘very belief system in corporate slavery’.  It also made it very confusing for his staff when he’d question why they were working into the night when he only gave them enough work for a day.  While his book may have been about fathers it had major repercussions for women and the entire nature of work.  

Germaine Greer may have cheered.  Because as she recently said on Q and A at the ‘Festival of Dangerous Ideas’, ‘Women are achieving parity in the workforce at a time that the workforce is spectacularly disabled… where workers are at a disadvantage ….  I have never argued for equality with men in the corporate world. It is misery; it is a really destructive system.’  Her tablemate, Peter Hitchins, took her idea further and into crazyland by stating that the alliance between “radical left wing feminists and corporate multinational power is one of the most sinister cynical alliances since the Soviet Nazi pact.” He didn’t get any further as the audience laughed him out.  But Germaine and Daniel Petre have a point.

Sheryl Sandberg used to hide the fact that she left work most days at 5.30pm by scuttling out for ‘meetings’ at other venues.  Now she leaves by the front door.  Perhaps changing the nature of work is where men’s ‘lean in circles’ could focus their energy.  Any group that can change the capitalist system to have more humanity for women, men and children is a group I’d be willing to join.  With or without freckles.

 

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