The very thorough instructions called for an intimate space, and since the cozy office suite near Manhattan's Union Square used to be an apartment, it fit the bill.

Six women gathered there last Sunday, handpicked because they were up-and-coming entrepreneurs -- the young CEO of an online networking site; another who had recently sold her fashion website; the editor of a startup literary journal; the co-founder of a sustainable commerce company; a digital marketer. They were all in the first 15 years of their careers, full of ambition and looking for guidance. After spreading the take-out from Whole Foods on the dark wood table, they settled in on cozy white couches, took turns snuggling with the resident puppy, and began. They’d planned to come for lunch, they said, describing the meeting, but at dinnertime they were still talking. 

These women were “leaning in,” creating one of the first instances of what some hope will become a movement to increase the number of women in power -- and others dismiss as just another way to find flaws in women, rather than in a workplace culture that makes it harder for them to succeed. Called “Lean In Circles,” gatherings like these are being encouraged in tandem with the highly anticipated book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, which will be published by Knopf on March 11.

Sandberg's message -- that women sabotage themselves at work in ways that men do not -- has been viral and controversial since she introduced it, first in a TED talk in 2010 and again in a speech at Barnard College’s graduation the following year.

It became even more divisive recently, when drafts of documents from Sandberg’s new nonprofit foundation,, leaked to the press, outlining her plans not just to promote her book, but to launch a crusade, teaching women practical strategies for getting ahead in the workplace. The resulting coverage was hardly friendly. “People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down,” warned Maureen Dowd, who described Sandberg as “tone-deaf to the problems average women face.” That wave of critical commentary was followed by a second, chiding the critics for reaching conclusions without first having read the book.

The Huffington Post was given an exclusive look at the website (which officially launches Wednesday) and at the final version of the documents that lay out the Lean In model, all of which make it clear that the broad-stroke criticism does not reflect the more nuanced reality of what Sandberg is trying to do. 

The movement Sandberg champions consists of three parts, according to president Rachel Thomas and others who created the foundation and who spoke for the first time to The Huffington Post for this article. First is the community Sandberg hopes will gather on the website, sharing stories of “leaning in” -- times when women took a risk and followed their ambitions in spite of their fears or insecurities. Contrary to early reports, however, there is no ban on stories about what Sandberg calls “leaning back” -- deciding that it is not the right time to take on a new challenge, for reasons such as a child's birth, a parent's health or a need to regroup and recharge. Thomas points out that Sandberg herself tells the story of turning down the job of CEO of LinkedIn because she was 37, wanted to have a second child, and, as she writes in Lean In, “I didn’t think I could handle both a pregnancy and a new job.” (Seven weeks after that baby was born, Mark Zuckerberg recruited Sandberg to Facebook.) 

The second pillar of Lean In will be education, particularly a series of videos prepared for the foundation by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. That organization has been “redesigning and redefining work” for years by translating data on gender bias into practical workplace strategies, says Lori McKenzie, associate director of Clayman. McKenzie believes that a partnership with Lean In will allow the institute to bring its message, which had previously been used in small workshops of executives, to far more women. 

Five videos already exist on the website, presenting both research and advice on such subjects as body language, negotiation strategies and likability, and how expectations differ for men and women. Early descriptions of those videos have brought mockery, with some critics suggesting that giving women a tip to stand like Wonder Woman -- hands on hips, chest proudly forward, feet planted hip-width apart -- is sexist, or at least simplistic. Deborah Gruenfeld, one of the Stanford professors in the videos, responds that it’s neither: It's science. Such “expansive” use of the body is shown to increase testosterone and risk tolerance in men and women, she told HuffPost, while the more constrictive stance that women usually take increases the hormone cortisol, which in turn increases stress.
The videos will be free and available on the website and will also form the core of the third piece of Lean In -- the one the women gathered in the Union Square apartment last weekend were experimenting with. The foundation hopes to promote the formation of small groups of women, known as "Circles," to coach, support and educate each other -- sometimes as clusters of friends or acquaintances, sometimes under the sponsorship of the 120 companies, women’s organizations and non-profits that have signed on as Platform Partners (The Huffington Post is one) agreeing to offer Lean In materials to their employees.

Researching the practices of groups ranging from the Young Presidents’ Organization to Weight Watchers led Sandberg to conclude that their success hinged on a promise of confidentiality and a commitment from members. (Early drafts of the Lean In framework included the requirement that members be allowed to miss no more than two monthly meetings per year, but later versions describe this as a suggestion. It's not clear whether the change came before, or as a result of, the criticism that such rules were overly prescriptive and controlling.) 

Pre-launch, just a handful of Circle groups have held meetings, and all of those have a direct connection to Sandberg, meaning they don't offer an unbiased sample. They include the one described above, created by Caroline Ghosn, the founder of Levo League, which has been called “the LinkedIn for Gen Y.” Sandberg is an investor in Levo, and having learned about the Circles plan, Ghosn invited five other women who were in similar stages of their careers to the Sunday gathering in her homey office space, where they talked for hours beyond the 90 minutes the Lean In guidelines suggest. 

“There is a crisis of confidence in our generation,” said Ghosn, who is 26. “We are hungry for a structured, guided way to lead us through that. Lean In provided the materials and the framework, but doesn’t dictate from the top down.”

On the other side of the country, Bianca Gates reached a similar conclusion. She applied for a job at Facebook after hearing Sandberg’s Barnard commencement speech, and, as a member of the company's Global Sales Division, concedes she is not unbiased about But she also says that the Lean In Circle she’s created in San Francisco began independently of Sandberg. On maternity leave with her second child last summer, Gates, who is 34, hatched the idea of getting a group of her accomplished friends together to talk business, but she couldn’t figure out what exactly they would talk about. At the Facebook holiday party in December she mentioned this to Sandberg, who offered her the nascent Lean In curriculum. 

Gates invited 18 women to her first meeting in January -- all in their mid-30s, all with young children or with plans to have kids soon. All of them came. That group has now split into two smaller ones, per Lean In suggestions that the ideal Circle size is six to 10 people. Word of mouth from these groups, in turn, led to the formation of two more in the San Francisco area and one in New York. 

Each meeting, Gates said, has left her with advice she could use at work the next day. Gruenfeld's video about “Power and Influence” taught her that “impressions are based only 7 percent on what you say and 93 percent is how you present yourself,” she said. So now Gates is careful to be the one who holds the door for others, rather than scooting through it, to relax in meetings, because doing so conveys authority, and to speak far more slowly, a mark of power. “I can’t say whether it’s caused people to treat me differently,” she said. “But I can say I feel way more confident.” 

Is that enough? Even if one could measure improved perception of women who learn the Lean In lessons, would that shift eliminate the gap between where women should be and where they are -- 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 20 percent of the Senate and earning 77 cents for every dollar earned by men?

Sandberg is the first to say it will not. In her book she writes: 

This is the ultimate chicken-and-egg situation. The chicken: Women will get rid of the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. The egg: We need to eliminate the external barriers to get women into these roles in the first place. Both sides are right. They are equally important. I am encouraging women to address the chicken, but I fully support those who are focussing on the egg.

That focus, in turn, is supported by some who have spent their careers advocating for women in the workplace.

“She is zeroing in on the question of ambition and perception,” Jennifer Allyn, managing director of the office of diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the Lean In partner companies, said in an interview. “That is one piece of the dialogue, what women need to do. The second part is what does the firm need to do. I applaud her for using her platform as a woman in business to draw attention to this. Those of us who care deeply can use this opening to have the conversation that companies need to lean in, too.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the suggested size of Lean In circles is six to eight members. The suggestion is eight to ten members.


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  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

    Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

  • A New Kind Of Cover Girl

    In March 2013, Sheryl released her new book, “Lean In,” and it instantly shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list -- and landed her on the cover of Time magazine.

  • Advocating For Women In The Workplace

    Sheryl had never spoken about women’s issues in public before her TED talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” and she was advised against it by her peers, who claimed that it would draw attention to the fact that she is a woman. Sheryl laughed and said, “I think they know I’m a women.” The video of her TED talk instantly went viral. Overnight, Sheryl established herself as a leading advocate for women in the workplace.

  • Born To Lead

    The oldest of three children, Sheryl possessed undeniable leadership skills from an early age. But while young boys are often encouraged to lead, Sheryl was regularly referred to as “bossy.” Part of her mission today is to teach parents to encourage their young daughters to develop their leadership skills, instead of dismissing them as overly aggressive.

  • Standing In Her Own Way

    For her whole early life, Sheryl felt that she needed to hold herself back from being too successful or appearing too smart. In high school, she was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her peers, but was embarrassed by the recognition. She asked a friend on the yearbook staff to remove that title from her name.

  • Welcome To Silicon Valley

    After serving as Chief of Staff at the U.S. Treasury Department, Sheryl made her way to Silicon Valley, where she accepted a position as Vice President of Google’s Global Online Sales & Operations. At the time, Google was a small start-up, but during her stint with the company, it became an unprecedented success.

  • A Fateful Meeting

    Sheryl met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at a Christmas party held by Yahoo COO Dan Rosensweig in late 2007. Although he wasn’t actively looking for a new COO for Facebook, Mark knew that Sheryl would be perfect for the job. After several months of becoming acquainted with one another, Sheryl left her post at Google to become Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer.

  • Marriage As A Real Partnership

    In various interviews, Sheryl has stressed to women the importance of choosing a partner who supports their career and agrees to assist with housework and childcare. Her husband, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg, possesses these qualities, which allows the pair to operate as a team.

  • A Well-Educated Woman

    A graduate of Harvard College, Sheryl earned her A.B. in economics and went on to earn an MBA from Harvard Business School. In May 2011, she spoke at the commencement ceremony at Barnard College about achieving equality in the workplace and seeking ways to find work/life balance.

  • Economy Whiz

    Sheryl is no stranger to economics. At Harvard, she met mentor Larry Summers, who later recruited her to serve as his research assistant at the World Bank. Here she appears on stage alongside Danielle Gray, deputy director of the National Economic Council; Mari Pangestu, Indonesia's trade minister; and moderator Chris Jansing at the APEC Women and the Economy Summit in September 2011.

  • Working For The President

    After a stint as a business consultant, Sheryl served as the Chief of Staff for the United States Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2001. Here, she joins the former president and Katie Couric at the Women for Women International Gala at the Museum of Modern Art in November 2011.

  • Chosen By The Commander In Chief

    President Obama listens intently to Sheryl’s advice during a meeting of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. The council was established to promote growth in American business and equip American workers with the skills they need to succeed.

  • Women Who Have Leaned In

    Arianna Huffington has been a strong supporter of Sheryl’s “Lean In” message, which calls for women to eliminate self-doubt and focus on their personal well-being. Here, Sheryl joins Arianna at the 2011 Matrix Awards, which honor women in communications and the arts.

  • An Evening At The White House

    Who has Sheryl referred to as her biggest personal role model? Her mother, of course! Here, she escorts her mom, Adele Sandberg, to the White House for the State Dinner for South Korea in October 2011.

  • Discussing New Marketing Tools

    In Sheryl’s current position at Facebook, she oversees business operations, which includes everything from marketing and sales to public policy and human resources. Here Sheryl speaks to an audience of marketing professionals at a Facebook event in February 2012.

  • Weighing In At The World Economic Forum

    Now a highly sought-after speaker on the world stage, Sheryl participated in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2013.

  • Powerful Women Team Up

    Sheryl spoke about women in business with Chelsea Clinton as part of the promotion for her new book, “Lean In” in March 2013.

  • Post 50 Female Legends And Icons

    Post 50 Female Legends And Icons

  • The Disney Princess

    <strong>Who:</strong> Ann Sweeney (53) <strong>Why:</strong> In a world where young girls dream of being like Cinderella, Snow White, and Jasmine -- we can't help but think how cool it is that there's a new Disney princess to look up to: Ann Sweeney. As the co-chair of Disney Media Networks and President of Disney-ABC Television Group, she is a woman in a predominately male business. Sweeney uses this platform to work in organizations such as Cable Positive - a group of CEOs that work with the media's resources in the fight against AIDS. Photo: Getty

  • The Fashion Icon

    <strong>Who:</strong> Grace Coddington (70) <strong>Why:</strong> The Creative Director for U.S. <em>Vogue</em> stole the show in the 2009 documentary "The September Issue" where she fearlessly goes head to head with <a href="" target="_hplink">"ice-queen"</a> Anna Wintour. It goes without saying, her trademark hair is pretty amazing, too. Photo: Getty

  • The Philanthropist

    <strong>Who:</strong> Wallis Annenberg (72) <strong>Why:</strong> She's not your average philanthropic socialite! The heiress publisher-turned-public benefactor donates her time and money to making cities like Los Angeles well rounded and beautiful. Bob Colacello's portrait of Miss Annenberg for <em><a href="" target="_hplink">Vanity Fair</a></em> is one of our favorites. Photo: Getty

  • The California Girl

    <strong>Who:</strong> Dianne Feinstein (78) <strong>Why:</strong> In many ways, it seems the San-Francisco born Feinstein has been a heavy-hitter since the day she was born. The former (and first-female) San Francisco Mayor is a California girl thru-and-thru who has survived divorce, death, and even representing the Democrats in the Senate. Photo: Getty

  • The Empowerer

    Who: Oprah Winfrey (57) Why: Oh Oprah, how do we love thee? Let me count the ways... besides being "arguably the world's most powerful woman," according to <em><a href="" target="_hplink">TIME</a></em>, Oprah has a philanthropic compulsion to match her monetary earnings. Through her <a href="" target="_hplink">Angel Network</a> and <a href="" target="_hplink">Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy</a>, she has supported women's shelters, built youth centers and homes, created academic scholarships and established more than 50 schools around the world. Photo: Getty

  • The Zen Master

    <strong>Who:</strong> Donna Karan (63) <strong>Why:</strong> The international wellness crusader started her <a href="" target="_hplink">Urban Zen Foundation</a> (UZF) in the months following her husband's death to cancer. The UZF and the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy programs strive to integrate of yoga, meditation and aromatherapy into conventional treatment regimens. Photo: Getty

  • The Resilient Author

    <strong>Who: </strong>Joan Didion (76) <strong>Why:</strong> After the literary icon behind "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "Play It As It Lays" endured the deaths of both her husband and daughter - she gave us the gift of "The Year Of Magical Thinking". "Blue Nights," Joan Didion's memoir about her daughter, Quintana, will be released on Nov. 1, 2011. Photo: Getty

  • The Reinventor

    <strong>Who:</strong> Maria Shriver (55) <strong>Why:</strong> After experiencing public betrayal, Shriver really showed her grace. She's won a Peabody Award and two Emmys for her broadcast journalism, but she's won the heart of her fans through her empathy and reliability. Post-scandal, she's back on the saddle again -- Shriver <a href="" target="_hplink">interviewed</a> Wallis Annenberg for <em>Los Angeles Magazine</em>'s inaugural "Women's Issue". Photo: Getty

  • The Go-To Girl

    <strong>Who: </strong>Barbara Walters (82) <strong>Why: </strong>She's undeniably the queen of interviews having questioned the likes of Monica Lewinsky, Hugo Chavez, Anna Wintour, Katherine Hepburn and Anwar Al Sadat -- to name a few. Now holding the reigns on <em>The View</em> she's as strong as she's ever been. Photo: Getty

  • The CEO

    <strong>Who:</strong> Indra Nooyi (55) <strong>Why:</strong> The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo was the 2011 <a href="" target="_hplink">BlogHer</a> Keynote speaker and blew the crowd away. Business Week quoted Roger Enrico as saying, "Indra can drive as deep and hard as anyone I've ever met, but she can do it with a sense of heart and fun." Photo: Getty

  • The Funny Girl

    <strong>Who:</strong> Ellen Degeneres (53) <strong>Why:</strong> The 13-time Emmy winner has more than a fantastic sense of humor going for her. Not only did she risk <em>everything</em> to come out and conquer LGBT issues, she consistently supports the charitable efforts of the <a href="" target="_hplink">American Red Cross</a> and the <a href="" target="_hplink">Farm Sanctuary</a>. Photo: Getty

  • The Rockstar

    <strong>Who:</strong> Bonnie Raitt (61) <strong>Why:</strong> The best-selling, classic blues-playing rockstar follows in rebel music history with her long-standing political activism. She frequently speaks out against politicians she doesn't support and just as often she praises those she admires. In 2000, she was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame - for a game that mostly men play - but we aren't knocking her dad, John, because we loved him too. Photo: Getty

  • The Academy Queen

    <strong>Who:</strong> Meryl Streep (62) <strong>Why:</strong> Not only does she have 16 Academy Award nominations and 25 Golden Globe nominations, but she often has won these accolades playing roles that defy the gender roles assigned to women. Streep plays Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming film, "The Iron Lady". Photo: Getty

  • The Peacemaker

    Who: Hillary Clinton (63) Why: The current Secretary of State is no stranger to gossip. She has always risen above adversity with dignity and style. Not only was she an active First Lady, but she did as we know, run for President herself. No shame in that! Photo: Getty

  • The Power Player

    Who: Diane Sawyer (65) Why: The former host of <em>Good Morning America </em>and current anchor of <em>ABC World News</em> has interviewed famous people such as Robert McNamara, Nancy Pelosi, Richard Nixon, Nancy Reagan, Madonna, and Roman Polanski. She was one accused of being "Deep Throat" and has fought the "Mommy War" rumors with ease. Photo: Getty

  • The 'Leading' Lady

    <strong>Who:</strong> Angela Merkel (57) <strong>Why:</strong> The current Chancellor of Germany has epitomized a female in a position of leadership. <em><a href=",28804,2066367_2066369_2066098,00.html #ixzz1bTuNodMU " target="_hplink">TIME Magazine</a></em> once said, she has "a spirit of compromise in the service of a genuine ambition -- and fed by a desire for openness." According to <a href="" target="_hplink">ABC News</a>, Merkel is the "undisputed leader of the EU." Not bad. Photo: Getty

  • The Pioneer

    <strong>Who:</strong> Jill Abramson (57) <strong>Why:</strong> We call her "The Pioneer" because Jill Abramson is the first female editor of the <em>New York Times</em> in the newspaper's history. Some rumors have her as difficult to work with and others proclaim her dedication to NYC based on the subway token tattoo she has on her right shoulder (via <em><a href="" target="_hplink">Forbes</a></em>). Either way you swing it, she's a woman who is revolutionizing the way women are viewed in media and publishing. Photo: Patrick McMullan

  • The Helper

    <strong>Who:</strong> Condoleezza Rice (56) <strong>Why:</strong> The former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor did not forget the importance of strong educational roots. After her time concluded at the White House, Rice returned to Stanford as a Political Economy Professor in the Graduate School of Business. Rice has been prolific in female society roles. She is on the Board at both the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Photo: Getty

  • The Girl's Girl

    <strong>Who:</strong> Gloria Steinem (77) <strong>Why:</strong> As the leader of the Women's Liberation Movement, Steinem has been at this for a while -- and she's not backing down. She co-founded the Women's Media Center, the Coalition of Labor Union Women and <em>Ms. Magazine</em>. She is writing a book about her activism, with the working title of "Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered." Photo: Getty

  • The Movie Star

    <strong>Who:</strong> Michelle Pfeiffer (53) <strong>Why:</strong> The one-time Cat woman has shied away from press in the past, but her recent cover for <em>Elle Magazine</em>'s "Women In Hollywood 2011" issue has reminded us all that she never really left the limelight. Photo: Getty