DoD’s Lean In Circles: What They Are, Why They’re Important

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

It’s been a year since the Defense Department started supporting participation in Lean In Circles, and so far, the response by its participants has been great. Many military and civilian folks – men and women alike – are talking about how they’ve improved their perspectives and experiences.

While the program might be a year old, it’s still new to a lot of people, so here are some basic details about Lean In Circles:

What are Lean In Circles?

Lean In Circles are small peer groups that meet regularly to learn and grow together. The concept was created by, the nonprofit organization founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to empower all women to achieve their ambitions.

Why are DoD Personnel Involved?

Women make up half of the U.S. population, and yet in the military, there are very few women in leadership roles. To continue recruiting and retaining America’s top talent, the DoD has to use one of our nation’s biggest strengths – it’s diversity – to its advantage, and that includes closing the gender gap. One way Defense Secretary Ash Carter did that was by opening all military careers to women earlier this year.

But the DoD – or any organization, for that matter – doesn’t have perfect insight into barriers that restrict certain populations of the workforce. The Lean In Circles can help do that, since research has shown that small groups and peer mentoring can help people advance their careers and reach for their goals. Carter said that facilitating DoD personnel’s involvement in these circles will improve morale, boost productivity and help build diverse leadership.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James poses with members of the Officer and Senior Civilian Circle that she hosts.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James poses with members of the Officer and Senior Civilian Circle that she hosts.

How Military Circles Work:

DoD civilians and service members of any rank can join any Circle that fits their needs. The Circles meet at regular intervals to help men and women feel more connected to their units, feel more comfortable talking openly about gender issues in the military, and share experiences and advice on acknowledging, changing and overcoming biases. Whether you’re of a high or low rank, a man, a woman or a minority, you’re invited, and your opinions matter.

Why Are Men Getting Involved?

Yes, many of the Circles do have men in them. While the Circles are meant to empower women, they can do a lot for men, too, like offer valuable insight into what women are experiencing. That can help further bring about change in the current military culture and strengthen the DoD as a whole.

Starting/Joining a Circle Is Easy:

Visit to see what circles you can join on your base or in your field of work.

The circles take place anywhere – from mess decks and libraries to conference rooms or even the corner of an airplane hangar – and the DoD allows time during the work day, as well as before and after, to meet. If you’ve PCS’d or are on TDY and can’t make the meetings, some are available online.

If you want to start a new one, you can do that, too.

Since Lean In Circles began a year ago, many in the military have embraced them. There are now 110 circles and 1949 members in the Military chapter, with 20 circles and 285 members in the Women Veterans chapter. There are circles in 24 states, including at all three military academies, as well as in Puerto Rico, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, Germany and the United Kingdom.

To hear about some of the personal growth many of our DoD folks have experienced through these circles, click here!

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