Participants in women's leadership program at Stanford share their experiences with President Hennessy, other senior officials

Panel brings together President John Hennessy and representatives from University Human Resources and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research to launch second year of innovative program designed to foster women's leadership.

L.A. Cicero Voice & Influence panelists

Caitlin Azhderian, director of student and academic services in the Department of Electrical Engineering, speaks about her experience leading a Voice and Influence Circle.

When Sheryl Sandberg delivered the Jing Lyman Lecture at Stanford last year, the Facebook COO and Lean In author urged Stanford leaders to use the university's wealth of knowledge to promote gender equality on campus. President John Hennessy was in the audience that day and heard the call. With his urging, University Human Resources (UHR) and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research launched a program titled Voice & Influence Circles to empower women to engage in dialogue about enhancing their professional growth on campus.

Last week, Hennessy participated in a panel discussion with leaders of those circles, including Caitlin Azhderian, director of student and academic services in the Electrical Engineering Department; Elaine Ray, director of campus communications; and Marcia Cohen, senior associate dean for finance and administration in the School of Medicine, who spoke about their journeys, successes and insights about how to make the program even stronger for the second year.

Overall, 130 women participated in the pilot program, which resulted in 20 circles, which came together on a variety of issues and interests, including work-life balance, harnessing creativity and charting a path for those experiencing an empty nest. The circles of about six to eight participants met regularly throughout the 2013-14 academic year. The pilot program also was a research project designed to understand what makes an effective group learning, cohort-based program.

"The more we can create an environment for each individual to flourish, the better Stanford will be," said Hennessy. "I'm impressed by the high number of participants who feel this program really makes an impact on creating more career paths for growth and leadership," the president added after hearing firsthand how one circle participant, who had struggled with her own career advancement, had recently moved into a more senior role with the support and encouragement of her Voice & Influence group.

UHR and the Clayman Institute brought their own expertise and perspectives to the Voice & Influence partnership: UHR brought a detailed knowledge of workplace dynamics and challenges at Stanford, and the Clayman Institute brought a well-developed online Voice & Influence curriculum and learning model that could be quickly launched as a broader pilot.

"The Voice & Influence program was created to be delivered in cohorts," added Shelley Correll, director of the Clayman Institute and sponsor of the pilot. "Cohorts enable participants to support each other and discover what works in their lives."

"My sense is that this [program] was much needed, and we need to continue to do more of it," said David A. Jones, vice president of human resources. "This is what growth mindset looks like at an institution like Stanford."

Circles of peers lean in together

"We recognized the value of a relatively simple framework of peer mentoring and networking," said Phyllis Stewart Pires, the university's senior director of worklife strategy, who served as the project lead to launch the circles initiative at Stanford.

Before leaders kicked off their first circle meetings, they participated in a training event led by UHR and the Clayman Institute team in fall 2013. Leaders were introduced to research on gender dynamics in the workplace and were provided with educational videos and accompanying discussion guides to share with their groups.

L.A. CiceroMarcia Cohen on Voices and Influence panel

Marcia Cohen, senior associate dean for finance and administration in the School of Medicine, was a circle leader during the program's first year.

"The overall vision of our program is for participants to commit to one action at the end of each meeting that will empower women, engage men and create organizations where all people can thrive," added Lori Mackenzie, Clayman Institute executive director. "These actions enable participants to experiment with real-world solutions in their own lives and then debrief with the group during each session."

From the training, leaders set out to recruit their circle members. The guidelines were flexible: to enlist participants outside of their immediate chain of command in order to facilitate uninhibited, confidential conversation, and to center recruitment on a shared interest or goal.

By reaching across campus to build groups of peers, participants found support networks that paved the way not only for emotional support but also for pragmatic connections, such as ties to potential project collaborators or finding information about professional opportunities. By sharing personal experiences and learning from one another, many participants developed deep relationships with their circles. "We are and continue to be a support structure that acknowledges each other's strengths publicly," said one of the circle co-leaders, who added that one of the participants in her group described the outcome as, "I now have my own circle of influence."

Educational content to empower women's voices

In addition to the empowerment that came from building new relationships, Voice & Influence Circle participants followed an educational curriculum designed to teach leadership skills, while increasing awareness of gender dynamics in the workplace.

The Voice & Influence video series was developed by the Clayman Institute team, and the videos became widely publicized as content on the Lean In website. The videos feature professors from the Stanford community and beyond.

Three professors from Stanford Graduate School of Business are featured in the curriculum: Deborah Gruenfeld focuses on body language, Margaret Neale provides expertise on negotiation and Jennifer Aaker focuses on advocating for your ideas. Regarding the impact of this education, Neale explains that "the videos provide clear prescriptions on what we can do differently to lead effectively in today's global organizations."

Impact assessment shows positive impact of pilot

Accompanying the Voice & Influence Circles pilot was a research project led by Marianne Cooper and Sara Jordan-Bloch, social science researchers for the Clayman Institute. Their goal was to understand the effectiveness of the program and to document findings.

Researchers surveyed circle leaders and members before, during and after the program, interviewed a sample of participants at the beginning and end of the year, and observed a sample of circle meetings.

The data found that the Voice & Influence Circles program had a significant, positive influence on the first wave of 130 participants.

Ninety-eight percent of participants who completed an exit survey reported that their participation in the program improved their leadership skills. Participants saw benefits accruing from networking and the educational curriculum.

One circle member described the program: "Different than previous leadership programs, since it's a shared experience and not a classroom experience. The videos were very relevant, and the circles seemed to have more real-time impact versus theoretical impact."

The program's takeaways included specific skills that leave women positioned to be agents of change in their individual workplaces. Ninety-one percent of respondents felt that the educational content of the program has altered their behavior at work and has increased their effectiveness.

As a testament to the positive experience participants had with the program, 70 percent intend to continue meeting with their circle for a second year, and 80 percent plan to recommend that friends and colleagues join a circle. That said, they do not think that the benefits of the program's educational content are limited to those who participate in circles.

After the event, circle members offered what they think could be different in the next round. One suggested that organizers consider gender in the context of other identities, such as race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or first-generation status.

Another circle member provided her thoughts on the panel event, "I felt proud that President Hennessy and Stanford are making this effort. Knowing that university leadership and human resources support this is encouraging to group members to be involved in something bigger. It helped to know this is considered important."

In its second year, the program will expand to include more circles. "With the success of the first program, we are even more confident that the program will make a difference for participants and for Stanford as a workplace overall," concluded Stewart Pires.

For more information about the Voice & Influence Circles program at Stanford, go to

Devon Magliozzi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology.