Women find empowerment in the workplace through Lean In Circles

Ten months after Defense Secretary Ash Carter sanctioned Lean In Circles for DoD agencies, women are using the circles to fight gender bias.

Editors note: Lean In Circle participants are referred to by their first names only to protect privacy. 

Gina is a woman and she’s black.  And when it comes to the federal workplace, she says being a double minority is a different experience.

Gina works with more than 8,500 other employees at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, so when she has a chance to come together and share her challenges and triumphs with other like-minded people it really helps.

Now that Lean In Circles have taken off in Defense Department agencies and in the military, Gina has taken full advantage of what they offer.

“A lot of the women’s issues are also issues that we see in the black community or the African American community or any other minority for that matter. I thought from that perspective it’s really great to have this because I have the opportunity to meet other individuals that are going through similar issues and trials and tribulations,” Gina said at an NGA Lean In Circle meeting last week.

“It’s very different when you’re a minority, when you’re on the outside, when you’re not the majority. There’s not a lot of diversity around the table and that makes it very difficult to get ahead in this organization. We always talk about how good you have to be. It’s not always how good you have to be, it’s a lot of the time who you know or who knows you.”

Almost a year after the Defense Department officially sanctioned Lean In Circles, women are taking full advantage of them in NGA to talk about being a woman in the workplace and how to get ahead professionally.

Lean In circles were created by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in order for women to discuss gender bias.

“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 during DoD’s Lean In roll out. “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.”

DoD has fully adopted Lean In Circles as a way to appeal to women recruits and obtain feedback on its policies.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter made it part of his Force of the Future initiative, which aimed to expand DoD’s recruitment pool, hire the best and most innovative workforce and retain the Pentagon’s top talent.

Last week, NGA’s monthly Lean In meeting filled up a large conference room with at least 25 women and one man.

It started off with a problem. How can I be heard in the workplace?

“From a female perspective and also a younger perspective and being an analyst, most of the time it’s the person who has been around the longest that’s looked at as the expert. You may have a really great idea and you may say it, but they’re not going to acknowledge it in the meeting and that’s happened to me a couple of times where they’ll come back to me after the fact and say ‘Oh yeah, that was a decent idea,’” one Lean In participant said during the meeting.

Women all around the room nodded their heads. Some shared their stories of being overlooked or belittled because they are women.

One women shared a story of supervisors not letting a woman join a team because “there would be too much estrogen.”

“They took me out of my team and put me on another one and I had to start all over again only because I was a woman and we get that attitude all the time,” she said. Those men “are all now seniors here.”

While these women face challenges, the Lean In Circles are not just areas where participants talk about problems. They also come up with solutions.

“You can draw out what those issues are and what they’re experiencing and you can let them dwell a little bit on what some of the problems are … but you do have to get to a solution set,” said Jo Ellen Adkins, moderator of the NGA Lean In Circle. “What you don’t want to do is have people leave that room feeling worse than when they came in. You want to give them hope and I think it is the job of the moderator not just to draw out information, but to make sure that people are looking at their future and looking at their future in a positive way.”

After airing some problems, the NGA Lean In circle does turn to solutions. Some veterans have old tips to share and young NGA employees have some fresh ideas.

One NGA employee named Charli said her team plans to back each other up in meetings. If one person’s idea doesn’t stick, but they know it’s good, they’ll try it from a different angle with a different person.

Another Lean In participant said her boss likes to listen to certain people on certain topics. So her team will send a particular person in to pitch an idea depending on the topic.

By the end of the meeting, there are smiling faces. The women say they feel empowered by having the Lean In Circles and that empowerment has translated to their personal lives too.

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