Monday, February 25, 2013

Grassroots Women Weigh in on "Lean In"

A Response to the New York Times February 21, 2013 article:  “A Titan’s How-To on Breaking the GlassCeiling” and Maureen Dowd’s “Pompom Girl for Feminism” February 24, 2013

A February 21 New York Times article profiled Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg's “Lean In” initiative and book which she is strategically launching in tandem with the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique next month. Sandberg has openly put herself forward as the possible next leader of the “new women’s movement.”   I reviewed the Lean In materials with interest and was left utterly stunned, with some very sobering questions and concerns to say the least.  As a woman involved in the global grassroots women’s movement and whose career has primarily been spent in the nonprofit sector focusing on women and girls, I wonder, is Lean In even close to what women really want?  To give you an idea of the gravity of my concerns, I quote from the Lean In materials themselves: “These publicity programs will be translated into social media campaigns to drive people into our activation funnel.“  and “Lean In will drive community members though partnerships with corporate influencers” and “We will target individuals with large followings.”  Do we really want to be funneled in, driven (like cars or cattle), targeted, and seen as someone’s “acquisition”? (Which is also a term used in Lean In materials to refer to women.)  Aren’t we absolutely tired with being seen as objects?  As Maureen Dowd states, “People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”  And I could not help but notice the standout piece of advice in the Lean In material, "Don't invite flakes.”  It leaves me wondering, how did we go from consciousness raising circles in the 1960’s to being targeted, driven, then funneled to corporate influencers fifty years later? Seems more like consciousness-contracting to me.   The focus of the global grassroots women’s movement has long since moved away from self-interest to include our sisters in and beyond US shores who have not yet benefitted from the first or second  wave of the feminist movement.  It is a global grassroots women’s movement that is about working collectively and cooperatively to serve the greater good and to care for each other and planet earth. Many women are not looking for a leader-driven movement at all, but see themselves as collective midwives of a New Story – a world that works for everyone.   

Quite possibly the most unsettling thing about the Lean In is co-opting the term "circle."  Why am I so triggered?  Because there has been a long standing sector of the women's movement that believes circle leadership could very well be the very key to solving most of the world's problems. And the numbers who believe this are exponentially growing.  This despite a concerted effort on the part of some enterprising people and companies like Ms. Sandberg and Google to try to brand this word, which many, many women in the global circle movement consider a serious and unfortunate turn of events.  Circle is fast becoming a homogenized buzz word. In contexts such as Lean In, it has been stripped of all its rich and relevant meaning and context. This in contrast to my colleagues in the global women's movement who have used circle principles in peace-building efforts at the United Nations and to help empower oppressed women in third world countries for over 28 years.  Yes, we take circle leadership very, very seriously. And this is because in a world rife with war, injustice, and acrimony, circles offer one of the few real and practical alternatives.  

Circles go back to ancient times. Our best teachers of circle technology are the many indigenous tribes who have never abandoned circle leadership for the top-down hierarchical model.   Egalitarian circles are the first and purest form of democracy. They ensure outcomes that are best for all, not those which arise from individual self-interest or win:lose intentions. Lean In’s interpretation of a circle is watered down and distorted.  It is not possible to pick and choose elements of circle principles and to mix and match them with top-down hierarchical methods.  For example, contrary to Lean In’s approach, there is no place in a true circle for the sole expert from outside who lectures to the group.  This is the absolute antithesis of a circle. In a circle all are leaders, and all share wisdom and experience.  The core learning comes from women sharing their insights and experiences to arrive at a higher order of collective wisdom.  No doubt, Lean In will respond by saying this is their intention, for women to share stories and learn from one another.  But I must ask who among us will feel comfortable sharing our most intimate, confidential stories in venues where corporate interests are pulling the strings behind the scenes?  It seems to me that Lean In Circles are in the end not any different from old style workplace training and development, just with a few bells and whistles borrowed from the circle movement thrown in to make them seem new and woman-friendly.   But at its core it is just more of the top-down, service-to-self, act-like-a-man to succeed-like-a-man prescription that devalues what is uniquely brilliant about a woman's natural or preferred way of doing, seeing, and relating. Do we really want to pass on to our daughters and nieces the “never enough” triggers we women have had to bear in the “do it all” world?  Do we really want to send the signal that they aren’t doing enough or are not successful enough unless they rise to the top of the corporate ladder?  And where is corporate responsibility for damaging the environment and exploiting people the world over, most particularly women? Is there a Lean In curriculum for this?   
In my brand of feminism, grassroots women taking compassionate action are the answer. Women are  not inadequate and in need of coaching and re-training to be better received in a man’s world. This kind of top-down prescriptive approach of “leader knows best” is moving against the forward momentum and positive gains of consciousness-raising grassroots feminism, not with it.       

I do not join others in attacking Ms. Sandberg's personal choices, deservingness of success or right to speak her views on feminism or anything else.  To me, these personal attacks are divisive without serving a constructive purpose.  My aim is to call attention to a worthy and timely issue.   Ms. Sandberg’s is asserting that she is a" or "the" rising leader of the women's movement.  Her platform, connections and wealth are being leveraged to create what is supposedly a “women’s circle movement" but which has very thinly veiled profit-based undertones (adding users and advertising dollars to Facebook). In a recent NY Times article about Sandberg, columnist Maureen Dowd said, “she doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign…She says she’s using marketing for the purpose of social idealism. But she’s actually using social idealism for the purpose of marketing.”  It seems to me the corporation is the last place women will look for the new leadership of the women’s movement.   I fear Lean In is an expression of the old patriarchal establishment who hold skewed, arrogant and myopic views of feminine leadership which ultimately serve corporate ends. Sadly, Lean In’s first curriculum module tells women how to sit and how to speak to be taken more seriously.  It's the old story all over again, imposing definition on women rather than listening for what they’ve been vehemently asking for and offering by way of solutions.   How is this "new" or even "feminist"?   Where are the feminine qualities such as compassion, deep listening, and flexibility in this plan? Where is the concern for our planet and for the less fortunate?  Lean In seems to miss the point.  Where is the courage to challenge the definition of success as being principally corporate or moneyed?  Who says the only kind of power that can change the world is power in the work place?  No, Ms. Sandberg’s vision for the women's movement is not nearly wide enough or inclusive enough for me.  Call it what it is, a corporate-driven workplace development plan for women, but it is disingenuous to refer to it as a new global woman’s movement. 
The real danger of a Sandberg-led movement is taking the focus away from the grassroots global women’s movement which already exists and lacks needed funding and deserved media attention.  It is another case of bringing attention and resources to those who already possess it.  Lean In arises from an elite, resource-rich class of women, mostly white and mostly in the west whose primary interest is career self-interest.  But I wonder, have we even begun to fully tap the vast power global women wield as consumers, as shapers of the next generation, as community-builders? These are all roles in which women already lead.  No  re-training required.  Just ask Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, Pawl Hawken,  Nina Simons, Frances Moore LappĂ© and Jean Shinoda Bolen, to name a few who have documented the mounting accomplishments of grassroots women. 
As a grassroots woman, I’d like to issue an invitation.  What if wealthy and influential women and corporations invest their millions into existing grassroots women’s programs and help us to do what we do best – enlist grassroots community towards social change? I believe our best hope for achieving shared leadership between the sexes is for women to go out and build businesses, groups, and organizations for which they make up their own, more humane, socially-responsible rules and standards. This is why we do what we do, and many of us for no pay whatsoever. Because we care.  We see very little social value in wealth-building for its own sake if it does not lead to advancing the greater good.   Women have a choice.  There is room for all kinds of feminism, certainly, but to me, the grassroots circle movement is a feminism that satisfies, that’s accomplishing great things with very little, and brings us somewhere new, connected and above all real.  I’m quite sure this is the kind of feminism that would make Betty Friedan proud.
Want to join real grassroots circle leadership in action?  The first week of March thousands of grassroots women from all over the world will be gathered near the United Nations headquarters in New York City for the 57th annual Commission on the Status of Women NGO Parallel Forum.  You can attend one of the thousands of workshops being presented by grassroots women and NGO’s. Recommended are  particularly those with “circle” in the title.  Many are free and open to the public. 
Laurie McCammon, MSAEd, is part of a collaborative of circle-based women's organizations, several which have consultative status with the United Nations.  Laurie is the co-author with Anne Smith of Enough: The Rise of the Feminine and the Birth of the New Story and is Co-Founder of, a global and free grassroots wome