Senior starts ‘Lean In’ circles to jumpstart campus conversation on women’s issues

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Senior Danielle Noel is looking to establish Lean In GW, a group for college women to discuss workplace equality that's based on Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's popular book.

When senior Danielle Noel first saw Sheryl Sandberg on 60 Minutes last year, she never imagined she would meet her, let alone work with her to become a leader for gender equality and self-empowerment on GW’s campus.

This fall, GW joined a network of 350 college campuses that already have Lean In circles, modeled after Sandberg’s best-selling women’s empowerment guide “Lean In.” Noel, who brought the organization to campus, has traveled to California twice in the past two months to work with the national organization.

During one trip, she was one of 13 women invited to participate in a Lean In livestream event at Facebook Headquarters with Sandberg.

“She is honestly so insightful, so humble, strong minded. I really appreciate that she strives to make Lean In an inclusive organization,” Noel said.

Noel is now recruiting members and establishing groups for college women to discuss workplace equality. At each meeting, the group plans to teach a new lesson from videos on the Lean In website. The videos are TED Talk-style lectures from professors, chief executive officers and other professionals, and cover a range of topics, with titles such as “Managing Difficult Conversations” and “Allow Yourself to be Brilliant.”

Lean In GW hopes to hold their kick-off event in early October, where they will show a recording of Noel’s Livestream event and recruit members to lead and participate in circles.

Last year, Noel said she was hesitant to apply for a “tech-heavy” internship that involved coding and writing copy. Lean In inspired her to apply, she said, and she ended up landing the position. Noel said the experience made her want to bring Lean In to GW and empower other students to step outside of their comfort zones.

“If you’re afraid of something, that’s even more reason to do it. If you’re uncomfortable doing something, lean in to that discomfort, and just go for it,” Noel said.

Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, has sparked an international movement of women’s empowerment in the workplace. After her 2010 TED Talk about the ways the corporate world holds back women, she was inspired by the response: Women and men shared with her their stories of overcoming challenges and finding success.

The messages in her book and its self-titled organization have supported a network of professionals who hold “Lean In Circles,” groups of about a dozen men and women who meet regularly to discuss workplace issues.

Last semester, Noel helped one circle begin on campus through GW Hillel. She said because it was a subset of an already established student organization, it was the perfect way to test circles at GW.

Kira Hattenbach, sophomore and co-chair of Lean In at Hillel, said the circle has helped her become a more confident Jewish woman.

The circle at Hillel has had two meetings so far this semester, where they have discussed feminism as a general topic, as well as the effect of the beauty industry on women’s body image. Members have used videos from Lean In to start conversations about women’s issues.

Noel hopes to develop more circles, focusing on different topics like sexual violence and cultural groups. One could center on international issues, building off GW’s large international student community.

“Whatever your circle needs, you can make it pretty unique,” Noel said. “There’s a universal message with Lean In: everyone is capable, everyone is able, everyone can have an impact.”

Andrea Saul, director of communications at Lean In’s national organization, said Lean In is pushing to establish more circles on campuses.

“College students face so many unique challenges as they’re preparing to head out into the world,” Saul said. “Circles can help by providing them the support and skills.”

Saul encourages groups to gain credibility by registering as an official student organization on their campus. When administrators as well as the national organization recognize them, Lean In provides circles with a “Campus Coach,” who can answer questions and give tips on how to successfully run a circle.

They can also have easier access to on-campus resources, such as funding from student associations and space to hold meetings, which have posed problems for groups that have not gained official status.

“There are some benefits to registering your circle as an official college club. We try to make it as easy as possible,” said Saul.

Saul added that 75 percent of college-aged participants have reported having a more positive outlook on life after they joined, and many have credited Lean In for their newfound ability to take risks at school and work.

“We’ve gotten such great feedback from women who say the circle has helped them raise their hand, take a class, run for leadership positions on their campus, and also men who say this gives them an open forum to discuss gender issues for the first time,” Saul said.

Stephanie Vilella, a member of GW’s chapter, said the group will help bring women together on campus.

“Our generation is fortunate because we have opportunities that women 80 years ago didn’t have,” Vilella said. “When I walk away from talking to someone about Lean In, I feel like I’m helping them realize they can tap into their potential and have an impact,” Noel said.

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