Circle of reason

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It has been six years since Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, published her landmark book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and stirred the hornet’s nest. She not only raised questions about the severe dearth of women in leadership positions or their difficulties in the workplace, but she did something different – she asked women to question themselves about what they were doing to change the status quo and encouraged them to take charge.

The book, and Sandberg’s NGO, LeanIn.org, have since caused a ferment of sorts, inspiring women, young and old, to be vocal about their dreams, ambitions and aspirations. Employers across the world have felt ‘Lean In’ insidiously changing the weather, if not the climate, of the workplace. They are witnessing more and more women asserting their rights to equal or better pay, negotiate for a vacation or that deserved promotion.

A Lean In Circle meet

‘Lean In’ does not work in thin air. It works through ‘Lean In Circles’ that can be formed in colleges, communities or the workplace where women talk openly about their ambitions and are encouraged to take on new challenges. Women in over 170 countries have joined the Lean In community. And now many of IIT Kharagpur’s women are part of that growing community.

The Lean In Chapter at IIT Kharagpur started in 2017 when Ayushi Mrigen, then a student of maths and computing, read Sandberg’s book and felt inspired, Jasmine Jerry, a 3rd year UG student of Aerospace Engineering informs me. She has been part of the Lean In Chapter since early 2018, and is already feeling the change. “I feel more confident while approaching people,” says Jasmine, who is also exploring her interest in aerial robotics with an alumni the Lean In Chapter has got her in touch with.

A Competitive Coding session under way

Mrigen, who has now graduated, enumerated the chapter’s objective in an article (https://medium.com/lean-in-iit-kharagpur/what-are-we-doing-at-lean-in-iit-kharagpur-bbb3d3832a26): “The major objective of this group is to create a community for women in IIT Kharagpur, and to give them a platform where they can learn, be inspired and serve as role models for others in the community.”

Samruddhi Pataskar, a member of the Lean In Circle, states the reason more explicitly (https://medium.com/@samruddhipataskar.pune/lean-in-iit-kharagpur-chapter-cae9706f5c18), “Although girls have displayed engineering proficiency and conquered challenges in STEM across the globe, we are yet to see a balanced gender ratio in engineering colleges. With a small peer group, it can get intimidating to pursue tasks that require teamwork. We aim at bringing together the girls of IIT Kharagpur to a common platform where they can find people with common interests, learn from each other, form teams and collaborate to work on projects.”

The Circle meets every week, where about 15–20 women come together for about an hour and engage in debate or discussion regarding at least one aspect which they believe will help them grow. “We try to discover our strengths, weaknesses, priorities, goals etc. through these activities,” writes Mrigen.

Complementing this slow and steady engagement are the “targeted workshops” that try to expose women to a variety of skills and options. They have seen overwhelming response from the campus girls. Take the two from the ‘Skill series’ – one was on Competitive Coding and the other was on Communicating with Confidence. There have also been two ‘Career series’ workshops – one a webinar with a former analyst of McKinsey to give an idea of what consultancy means, and the other a workshop where Mr. Rahul Sachdev from SAP Labs gave them a lowdown on Design Thinking.

A mentorship program with the alumni is picking up as well. A recent interactive session on August 31– titled ‘The Power of Us’ – saw lectures by Dr Malathi Lakshikumaran, a renowned Intellectual Property Rights lawyer, and Prof. Sudeshna Sarkar, Head of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence. The Lean In Circle has also been regularly interviewing successful female alumni and publishing these interviews in order to provide an opportunity for the college students to interact with their role models, and give them ready inspiration.

I talk with Shruti Shaunik, one of the lead coordinators of the Chapter and a fifth  year student of Chemical Engineering. She has also helped set up an FQ Lounge, which is supposedly a “destination”, be it at conferences, companies and college campuses, where women connect, collaborate and activate change together. It is quite obvious that Shruti is thinking ahead.

Shruti says, “The idea behind Lean In is that if you have a group of women actually invested in your success and who believe in you, you will definitely develop the confidence to approach anyone who you believe would be helpful. Just because the next helpful person is a guy, you will not hold back because now if you have the sufficient confidence or the skills to approach anyone who can help.” True to her words, the Lean In Chapter at IIT Kharagpur has not held back from either enlisting or seeking the help of the opposite gender in furthering its objectives. Take the Competitive Coding workshop, which was run by the boys.

The Lean In movement in general has been criticized for selling women wrong ideas – among them the belief that the woman is somehow to blame for an inequitable workplace, that she needs to behave like a man to be paid like a man, that all women are necessarily her well-wishers, giving women a misplaced sense of fulfilment and so forth. But Lean In the world over, quite evidently, has had as many detractors as ardent supporters.

Most certainly, Shruti and her team mates, who have taken charge of their future, belong to the second category. They are clearheaded about a lot of things – they want to stand up for themselves and are eager to learn and teach themselves ways of doing it. They believe that perceptions need to change, as much of women as that of men. And they also believe that it would help the cause if women bolstered and mentored one another.

The ‘Power of Us’ workshop

“The larger aim of the movement is to make women realize that their power lies in unity,” says Shruti. Despite the mid-sem, the needs of the Lean In Circle is never far away from her mind. She is already thinking of how best to inform and involve 1st year students into the Lean In Circle for giving them a headstart and a more permanent place to hold Lean In Circle and FQ Lounge meetings.

Graphics : Suman Sutradhar

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