Sheryl Sandberg and launch Lean In Girls initiative: ‘We’re telling girls you can lead on your own terms’

Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization are rolling out a new program for girls ages 11-15, designed to encourage girls to set leadership goals, navigate risk, and identify and challenge bias. With a free curriculum for facilitators, the program includes a combination of strength-building activities and education around stereotypes and the importance of allyship. 

Sandberg says she was inspired to create this new initiative because the adult Lean In community is thriving, with 80,000 circles in 183 countries, growing faster than ever before. But the latest reports show that it’ll be more than 130 years before women achieve equality, so Sandberg wanted to expand the program to reach girls when they’re particularly susceptible to negative social messages. 

“Girls in high school are twice as likely as boys to think that having any leadership role will make them be called ‘bossy.’ And so we realized that we’re kind of too late. We need to go younger and earlier,” Sandberg tells CNBC. “So we spent the last two years working on in depth research, taking all everything we learned for adults, working with girl experts to roll out a program that is specifically designed for girls, or anyone who identifies as a girl, in this age group.”

The 15 lesson curriculum is free for public download, so any adult – a teacher, girl scout troop leader or after-school program facilitator – can gather a small group of girls to introduce them to the program. The lessons, which were piloted through KIPP Public Charter Schools, Girls Inc, and the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas, are designed to address challenging issues – such as stereotypes and systematic unfairness – in an age-appropriate way. With a focus on interactivity, the program includes roleplay games and an activity where girls stand in a circle and stomp every time they hear something that is a stereotype.

“We really want girls to embrace and lean into their superpowers. So we teach them to really value their strengths, their identities and see how it makes them good leaders,” says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In. 

“We normalize things like risk-taking and really teach them to focus on what could go right instead of what could go wrong. We normalize failure and really talk about how it’s an opportunity to learn and grow. The other big thrust of the curriculum is on the importance of real talk. We want girls to know that they’re going to face stereotypes that there’s going to be headwinds. And we know when girls know how to identify and push back against stereotypes and bias it actually can be protective and empowering for them.”

Latricia Barksdale, VP of Lean In Girls, says she was inspired to take on Lean In’s expansion to the younger demographic by her work in the non-profit education space, working with schools and school districts, enabling her to understand how to create a curriculum that would be valuable and easy to implement. 

“I think this programming can be so transformational, because it can help girls at a very early age make meaning of the implicit and explicit messages they’re getting about who they are, who they should be, what they should be good at, what they shouldn’t be good at what they should like, what they shouldn’t like. It can help them understand that the messages they’re receiving are not about them personally.”

Sandberg says the program’s focus on calling out bias and stereotypes was inspired by her work at Meta, where she stepped down as COO last fall.

“One of the things I tried to do at Meta and I tried to do more broadly in the world with meaning but I really did do in my own company: call this stuff out,” Sandberg says. “We were looking in reviews for the word ‘aggressive.’ We were talking about how after the #MeToo movement men were not willing to meet alone in a room with a woman. I was there and Mark was right with me and we were calling the biases out and I think that went a long way to counteracting them. And I think that went a long way to developing some of the leaders I’m so proud of who are still at Meta.”

One reason Sandberg says she left Meta is to have more time to focus on initiatives such as Lean In Girls: “I wanted my new chapter to be able to really make a difference. We’ve been in development on this since I was at Meta, but being able to have the time to put in to [this launch] and to really be … a bigger part of this has meant a lot to me.” 

And Sandberg says when it comes to empowering a new type of leadership, the stakes are high: “We’re telling girls you can lead on your own terms, because that will be better for the world.”

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