This article was first published in Sixth Tone. Read it here.
It’s safe to say that when American Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook and advocate for women’s equality, published “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” back in 2013, she could only have dreamed of the vast impact her book would have on professional women worldwide.
Though Facebook is barred in China, Sandberg’s ideas on how women can overcome gender barriers to achieve success have resonated with Chinese women — and are set to become the inspiration for a new national women’s organization.
Since the book’s publication three years ago, Lean In groups — known as “circles” — have grown into a popular trend for professional women worldwide. Following the suggestions in Sandberg’s book, small groups of women have started to form intimate Lean In circles to support one another and discuss their professional achievements, personal goals, and family life. The simple format has since spread to 141 countries, with over 27,000 circles meeting monthly.
A Chinese translation of “Lean In” was published in June 2013, and it sold over 120,000 copies in the first two and a half months. The opening of Beijing’s “chapter” — as local branches are referred to — in 2013 stirred such interest among the American organization that it became one of Sandberg’s first visits to a branch outside of the U.S. The hype soon led to similar chapters opening in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. The end of 2015 saw something of a great leap forward, with professional women establishing chapters in more than 15 cities across the country and forming over 40 active circles.
The success of the Lean In movement in China is a direct challenge to the discrimination women face in the workplace, as well as the pressure many Chinese women feel to concentrate on starting a family rather than starting a career. “The family in China is a lot stronger than in the West,” claims founder of Lean In Shanghai Kang Kang, “so women are often afraid to dream big or follow their hearts.”
Kang, who is an investment manager, tells Sixth Tone that many of Lean In Shanghai’s members — usually young, well-educated urban women with high-paying jobs — made life-changing decisions like studying abroad or quitting unfulfilling jobs following Lean In meetings. “Women turn to Lean In for moral support, for inspiration — and to have fun and build connections with their female peers,” Kang says.
For the monthly discussion-based gatherings, Kang chooses topics familiar to Western feminists, such as “how to follow your inner voice” and “how to handle your finances,” along with distinctively Chinese topics such as the stigma against “leftover women,” or the lack of proper sex education in China. The events are all organized by Kang and several other volunteers, who spend hundreds of yuan out of their own pockets each month to cover operating costs.
As a movement of ambitious and forward-thinking women, it’s no surprise that Lean In China is looking to develop beyond small, local groups. “The intimate circles are not a big success in China,” claims Virginia Tan, a banking lawyer and the co-founder of the Beijing chapter. “Chinese urban women think big. They don’t want to host circles with 10 women, they want to make a difference.”
This sentiment has led founders in four major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen — to decide to unite all the chapters under one roof. “Our branches have more access to resources and international speakers than the smaller, newer groups,” explains Kang. “If we unite, we can share our materials and help strengthen their activities. Our goal is to reach every woman in China and help her realize and materialize her dreams. In the end, if you want to be heard in China, you need to build one big organization.”
But the road to national recognition in China is not a smooth one. China’s main women’s rights organization, the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation, has been criticized for espousing conservative attitudes towards marriage, causing many younger feminists to feel the organization is an outmoded bureaucracy that’s more concerned with protecting state power than pushing women’s rights.
Tan is keen to emphasize that building a national network of women’s empowerment groups should not be seen as a direct challenge to the well-established government organization. “We are not a political group and do not wish to bring political change,” she says. “Our agenda is not to blame the government or men, but to help women unlock their barriers from the inside. It’s not that we don’t want social change, but that social change is not something you have control over.”
The reluctance to rock the boat comes after Lean In China decided not to establish itself as a non-governmental organization, following new laws set out by the government recently that make it more difficult to register an NGO.
Yet regardless of the form that the Lean In movement eventually takes, Kang has her eyes set on a new frontier: reaching women from the countryside. It will be a challenge for China’s Lean In movement, whose core membership is firmly urban. Further afield, the Lean In movement has come under fire as being exclusive and elitist. In 2013, when Lean In was in its infancy, feminist Linda Burnham claimed the movement represented feminism for the 1 percent — “all about the glass ceiling, never about the floor.”
Kang doesn’t hide from the fact that Lean In currently serves a very limited demographic, and she envisages that the organization will need to bring in consultants if it is to effectively address the life experiences of rural women. “As a proper organization, we will have the ability to hire experts to deal with the unique situations facing these women, and help rural women realize their dreams and overcome their obstacles.”
(Header image: Members of ‘Lean In Shanghai’ listen to a speech during an annual event in Shanghai, Gao Zheng/Sixth Tone)