A new student support group launched last Thursday, 14th November, aims to provide a platform for students to connect with gender equality, specifically by addressing the lack of female leaders in college and wider society. College’s first ‘Lean In circle’ was established last week by postgraduate student Nadia Reeves Long. Already existing in 73 countries, ‘circles’ attempt to use peer support, networking, group discussions and structured meetings to “enable individuals to achieve their goals and develop personally and professionally” and “challenge the lack of women leadership at a grassroots level.” The small empowerment groups take their inspiration from the manifesto of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. Her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, uses research to highlight gender differences, and provide practical advice to women.
Attendees at the launch were invited to share their expectations with the group. These ranged from having “a network to connect people in a professional sphere, which would be a useful asset graduating from college” to “having space to discuss the negative social circumstances you might encounter and how to overcome them.” Students then carried out a ‘connection activity’ involving answering questions such as “what holds you back from pursuing your boldest dream?” A recurrent theme was a lack of confidence: “Even if I know something well, I will always be doubtful about it,” one person said. “I wish I could be more confident in my own opinions,” another added. “Even if you are the most qualified person in the room to talk about something, you still doubt yourself.” This was claimed to prevent female students “applying to a company” due to feelings of comparative inadequacy, or not “believing in the value of their creative ideas”. Another problem discussed by female students was the tendency for women to be “judged more harshly” and “seen negatively for trying to address inequality.” Advice from Sandberg was echoed at multiple points in the meeting, including regarding negotiating: “Women should use ‘we’ and men should use ‘I’. Men are promoted on potential and women are promoted on performance.” The meeting featured goals-setting, inspired by the Facebook COO’s challenge of doing ‘what you would do if you weren’t afraid’ and the credo ‘ready for anything, capable of everything’ was developed to conclude the meeting.The group turned its focus to identifying “small things we could do in the next month to combat these.”
Before she read Sandberg’s book, organiser Reeves Long “would have not have identified as a feminist” and “had never read feminist literature before,” she told Trinity News. Realising she was “exhibiting many of the behaviours” discussed in ‘Lean In’ provoked her to set up a Lean In circle – open to undergraduates and postgraduates – which she hopes will permit “practical application” of ideas proposed by Sandberg by “raising the issue of gender inequality on a broader level, because people don’t talk about it.” Regarding her experiences of gender inequality in Trinity, Reeves Long maintains she does not feel “overtly discriminated in any way” or that “men are sexist”. Instead, she perceives that while “our rights are equal,” women “sometimes hold ourselves back”. The circle, by “getting people to talk about it” aims to bring the subconscious to students’ consciousness: “Success and likeability is positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. I am probably as sexist as the next person and don’t realise it. I think that’s the problem.”
Reeves Long’s vision is that women will “get equal representation” across society. “The fact that there are 20,000 circles in the world shows there is gender inequality everywhere,” she said. “Only 4% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women. That it is a huge problem. If women didn’t want to get to those leadership positions I don’t think these circles would exist. Maybe women don’t all want to be in leadership positions but it’s definitely more than 4%.” Lean In circles are based on the principle that the type of gender inequality Trinity students face is a psychological problem that demands a psychological answer. Reeves Long credits encouragement from her friends who told her “definitely do this” as giving her the impetus to set up the group, indicating that circles of peers hold power to generate ripples of change.