Carter leans in to women’s issues in new partnership

The Defense Department is attempting to empower its female employees and service members by officially supporting Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit group Lean In.

DoD now officially approves Lean In group meetings before, during and after work hours at the Pentagon, military bases and other DoD component areas, as well as outside of work.

The organization is trying to lessen the leadership gap for women in the workplace by opening up dialogues about gender bias.

Embracing Lean In is part of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future.” The program aims to make the military workplace more competitive with the private sector.

Carter and Sandberg met with DoD and service members who belong to Lean In circles on Sept. 21.

“To stay the best we need to keep up with current trends in talent management. We need to ensure we are recruiting, maintaining and readying all Americans who step forward to serve,” Carter said after meeting with 12 female service members and department employees.

DoD’s partnership with Lean In comes at a time when Carter is courting companies in Silicon Valley. Carter is enlisting the help of companies like Google and Facebook as part of the Defense Innovation Initiative, aimed at keeping the United States technologically superior to its rivals.

Lean In circles are where workplace peers discuss gender bias. The groups are open to men and women and the procedures of the meetings vary by circle. Lean In says there are 24,000 circles in 120 countries.

Currently, only 9 percent of generals in the U.S. military are women, said Sandberg, who also attended the meeting with Carter.

“A lot of women who are serving and are fighting for our nation everyday are not necessarily in the roles that make it easy to get those promotions to general,” Sandberg said. “Gender is hard to discuss, it’s hard to bring up any issues about gender in the military … for fear of retribution or seeming like you’re asking for special favors, which is certainly not the case.”

Air Force Master Sgt. Heather Morales started a Lean In group at the Pentagon after Sandberg visited this spring. She was one of the service members who met with Carter and Sandberg. Her circle has about 12 members, including two men.

“There’s a strong suggestion a lot of times when women are successful that they were successful because they are cute or they are successful because they are women,” Morales said. “Those are some of the biases or underlying things that people don’t understand. When a woman is successful it has nothing to do with her looks, it has to do with her hard work.”

Morales said the men in her group are a great asset because they want to understand what causes the bias issues and what they could be doing wrong while being completely unaware.

She said one of the males in her group has a teenage daughter who will struggle through bias as she grows up, and he wants to understand how to help.

Deputy Commanding General for Operations at Army Cyber Command Brig. Gen. Patricia Frost also leads a Lean In group at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Instead of meeting in a formal setting, Frost’s members meet after work and run together. Frost said Lean In allows her to hear service members’ thoughts without worrying about the rigid hierarchy of the military.

“It’s a chance for me, being at the rank of general, to have an open discussion about what are the challenges and concerns of the work force. People feel they can have an open dialogue, non-attribution with me in a forum where they just want to express or get guidance,” Frost said.

As a female in a leadership role, Frost said women come to her about the next steps in their career and how to progress forward.

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