How one company is leaning in to support female leadership

The higher you look in corporate America, the fewer women you see. Brown Brothers Harriman is using Lean In Circles to level the playing field.

According to the Women in the Workplace 2016 report, companies’ commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, but women in corporate America fall behind early and continue to lose ground with every step. To level the playing field, companies need to treat gender diversity like the business imperative it is, and that starts with better communication, more training, and a clearer focus on results.

Lean In Partner Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (BBH) is doing just that through its Lean In Circles program. Lean In Circles are small peer groups that meet regularly to learn and grow together, and they work—more than 85% of members are more likely to tackle a new challenge or opportunity, and our partners report that more women are taking the lead as a result of the program.

BBH is a privately owned financial services firm with over 5,000 employees. The company’s leadership believes that the diverse ideas and perspectives of their employees are the cornerstone of their success.

“We are stronger because of our differences, and in order for our teams to excel, members of all viewpoints must trust one another and feel comfortable providing honest input,” says Alexandra J. Toskovich, Vice President at BBH.

The emphasis on inclusion at the firm led to the creation of two pilot Lean In Circles in the New York office in 2013. Today, Circles are thriving in five BBH locations. The Circles include female and male employees from all levels and departments. They meet routinely to encourage each other to take on new opportunities and discuss how to overcome gender bias. The leaders of each Circle work to ensure that participants feel free to voice honest opinions and concerns while focusing on constructive feedback.

All of this work is worth doing. Many studies link diversity to better business results, and all employees benefit from a workplace that is inclusive and fair.

BBH employees are seeing the benefits of inclusion firsthand. One BBH Circle member summed up her experience by saying, “My Lean In Circle helped me accept peer feedback and encouraged me to promote other women. I now feel more confident, and even did a speech at Toastmasters [a public speaking organization] — although terrified, I did it!”  

BBH’s Lean In Circles have also opened senior managers’ eyes to the challenges facing their direct reports. One manager said, “The awareness I've gained from my Lean In Circle has helped me become a better colleague and manager. Now, I try to include all types of personalities in conversations and meetings. I make a deliberate effort to engage employees whose voices may otherwise not be heard. We are all benefitting from a broader perspective.”

Senior Vice President Desiree Davis says that prioritizing women’s empowerment in the workplace is important because “women bring unique perspectives and insights into conversations. As more women take leadership roles, these perspectives and insights can be a part of important strategic decision making.”

Four years after the launch of BBH’s first Lean In Circle, Toskovich says the ripple effects of the movement can be seen throughout the firm. “The impact can be felt well beyond the Circles, beyond the workplace, and in the lives of BBHers,” she says.

BBH is just one of LeanIn.Org’s 900+ partners in over 20 industries that are leaning in to support female leadership. Although there’s no “one size fits all” solution, there are different steps companies can take to advance their gender diversity efforts and create a fairer, more inclusive work environment. Learn how you can partner with LeanIn.Org to support female leadership in your organization.