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Carter: DoD Provides 'Unconditional' Support for 'Lean In Circles'

By Lisa Ferdinando DoD News, Defense Media Activity

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WASHINGTON, September 21, 2015 — The Defense Department is providing "unconditional" support for "Lean In Circles," or peer-to-peer mentoring groups, to help in empowering women and to propel them into leadership roles, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today.

Carter sat in on a Lean In Circle at the Pentagon today with Sheryl Sandberg, the best-selling author of "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead." Sandberg is the founder of LeanIn.Org and the chief operating officer of Facebook.

More than a dozen women of various ranks from  across the services took part in today's circle, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Army Brig. Gen. Patricia Frost, and retired Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in the U.S. military to achieve the rank of four-star general.

DoD Support for Circles

The Defense Department, Carter said, will provide space and time for service members and civilians to participate in the circles. The meetings are voluntary and open to everyone. The secretary added that he highly encourages everyone to "take advantage of DoD spaces made available before, after or during work hours" for these meetings, whether in the Pentagon or around the globe.

The circles are an "investment in our people and our future," he said, explaining that the meetings boost morale and productivity and help to build diverse leadership.

"Our people make us the best; to stay the best, we need to keep up with current trends in talent management," the secretary said. "These circles have a proven record of empowering women throughout our ranks, and giving men a way to lean in also and support their female colleagues and improve themselves."

Women 'Mission Critical' in Military

The participants in today's circle talked about "institutional barriers" in the military, Sandberg said, noting a "leadership gap" that she said exists in every industry in the United States along with an "unconscious bias" in dealing with gender and race. 

"Nine percent of our generals are female; less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female," she said. A problem, she added, is that women often are placed in roles, such as support jobs, that are less likely to get promoted into CEO or general officer positions.

"The good news is that we can change this," she said.

Having women in the top roles in the military is "mission critical" in building the force needed to defend the United States and its values around the world, Sandberg said.

The military is the largest employer in the nation, and historically has a leader in social change, Sandberg noted. "If the United States military can get this right, other industries will follow, and today is part of that," she said. 

"I have great admiration for the women and men who serve in uniform or are part of the Department of Defense civilians, she said. “I have special admiration for the women, because you fight for equality with every step you take every day you come to work. A more diverse force is a stronger force."

Important Discussions

Frost, the deputy commanding general for operations at U.S. Army Cyber Command, said she holds an informal “fitness group” Lean In Circle. The discussions allow her to hear the challenges and concerns of members and get the "pulse" on some of the things going on in her command, she said.

Having "open conversations" is important in moving women forward in the military, the general said. While the circles give women a chance to talk about their challenges, she added, it also benefits men.

"I think we really have had a success story when it is men and women, and we are discussing how women can mentor men about women," Frost said. "I don't know that men know some of the biases that they have, and I just don't think they see it."

Air Force Master Sgt. Heather Morales, who has a Lean In Circle at the Pentagon, said today's discussions focused on what is holding women back in the military, and some of the things the women were experiencing at their bases or had experienced throughout their careers.

"It's very important to have these discussions, and especially at this level -- to have the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Air Force engaged to solve these issues -- because many of the problems that exist, some are related to biases that people don't even know that they have," she said.