Notes From a Lean In Circle: Why Do Accomplished Women Lack Self Confidence?

What Women Really Think
April 11 2013 1:00 PM

This Is Me Leaning In: Why Do Accomplished Women Lack Self Confidence?

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The homepage of Sheryl Sandberg's non-profit organization, leanin.org

leanin.org

When last we spoke, dear reader, I had resolved to create a lean in circle a la Sheryl Sandberg—essentially, a group of women who meet over the course of the year and follow a curriculum provided by Sandberg’s nonprofit, leanin.org. Since then, I’ve made a list of people I think are roughly my peers, in terms of where they are in their career. They all have what might vaguely be described as an “office job.” Following leanin.org’s advice, I didn’t invite anyone I currently work with and branched out beyond my closest friends.

I got a very positive response from most of the women I invited, with more yeses than I anticipated. After our first meeting in Brooklyn last week, I’m anticipating we’ll have six to 10 women at each meeting going forward. The age range is late 20s to mid-30s, with a mix of married, partnered, and single. The women are quite accomplished, some with graduate degrees, and they work in media, operations, human resources, nonprofit, and government. No one has kids yet. (That’s not by design—it just turns out that my peer group in New York is pretty light on mothers.) The circle by nature is confidential, and the particular stories and details in the article are shared with permission.

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The first meeting focused on introductions and setting personal and group goals. Each of us also shared a “lean in” or “lean out” story: A time where we really went for something we wanted professionally, or alternately, held back. A 17-page document for two group co-leaders detailed how much time each section of the kickoff session should take, and what points to highlight. (Occasionally its suggestions for jargon and formality seemed a bit silly to me, as when we were instructed to complete the declaration, “I am leaning into this group because …”) 

For my “lean in” story, I shared that when I was 25 and an associate blog editor at the Huffington Post, a friend of mine who was the Green section editor told me he was leaving the company and moving out of town. I was completely surprised when he suggested I apply for the job he was vacating—and doubted I could pull it off, though I was interested in environmental issues. But I decided to go for it, and I got the job. It was a great career move. I gained lots of crucial hands-on experience in building a brand, and I had some fantastic career experiences, like going to a TED conference in the Galapagos and covering the BP oil spill.

Then there were the “lean back” stories. Even the women who shared their professional triumphs were cognizant of times they had held themselves back and later regretted it. One woman remembered her boss announcing she would look outside the company for a position the woman was interested in having herself. She mildly offered to help with the search and then stewed with resentment for months about the missed opportunity.

I was struck by how often the theme of lacking confidence came up. In her book, Sandberg talks about the all-too-common “imposter effect,” which afflicts women who, “despite  being high achievers, even experts in their fields … can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are—imposters with limited skills or abilities.”

Since this is a feeling that someone as accomplished as Sandberg has experienced, I suppose it should come as no surprise that women in my lean in group have felt it too. I don’t think I have low self-esteem about my career, but I have definitely had powerful moments of self-doubt around changing jobs and asking for raises. It was interesting to connect with other successful women over a shared level of uncertainty in our professional lives.

Finally, the lean in materials suggest that you come up with three group goals. We chose improving our networking, pursuing personal projects, and “owning it”–building confidence, finding a personal mission, and working on self-empowerment. Our circle seems particularly eager to have goals we can measure at the end, so I’ll keep you posted on how well we do.

Katherine Goldstein is the editor of Vanity Fair's website, VF.com. Follow her on Twitter.