HomeLearning CenterTelling women to ‘lean in’ could do more harm than good

Telling women to ‘lean in’ could do more harm than good

Originally published by Jane Simms for Management Today


1. Female leaders – actual and aspiring – who follow the advice of Sheryl Sandberg and her acolytes to ‘lean in’, may be hampering progress towards true gender equality in the workplace.

2. By putting the onus to change on women themselves, ‘leaning in’ fails to address the societal impediments to equality, and reduces women’s propensity to get angry and protest – which, historically, has resulted in seismic changes to women’s lives, from the right to vote to equal pay for equal work.

In the decade since Sheryl Sandberg, former Facebook chief operating officer, published her best-selling book Lean In, countless women will have been taking her advice and seeking to build their confidence and resilience as they strive for success in a male-dominated world. But their efforts could be in vain, according to new research from the University of Exeter, Bath Spa University and the Australian National University, which finds that ‘leaning in’ reduces women’s propensity to challenge the structural barriers (including gender stereotyping and caring responsibilities) that are the real cause of enduring inequalities in the workplace.

The message of the ‘neoliberal feminism’ promulgated by Sandberg and others is that it is up to women to fix themselves. However, as the report makes clear, it is society that needs to change, not women. It points out that the main improvements to women’s lives and opportunities – from the right to vote, to receiving equal pay for equal work and maternity leave and pay – have been achieved through women’s collective action.

But by subtly shifting the responsibility for gender inequality from external causes to women themselves, the lean-in proponents inadvertently undermine women’s motivation to get angry and protest, say the academics. It’s a trend exacerbated by benevolent sexism, which, they write, “like neoliberal feminism, appears positive and affirming, but helps to maintain the gender status quo by promoting beliefs in inherent differences [such as women’s ‘caring’ qualities] between women and men”. Absolute belief in ‘meritocracy’ and life choices (people get to the top if they have the natural talent and desire to do so) compounds the myth.

The academics conducted four studies in the UK, among female undergraduates and employed female graduates – the principal targets and consumers of popular neoliberal feminist messages.

The participants were all presented with statistics on gender inequality. Those in the control groups were then asked questions designed to gauge their motivation to protest (based on perceived gender discrimination, anger about inequality and their intention to take collective action). Participants in the ‘lean-in’ groups either read messages promoting the importance of individual resilience to career progress, or participated in activities designed to build their resilience.

The researchers found:

– Women in ‘lean-in’ groups were less willing to protest against gender inequality than the control groups.

– This was because they were less likely than the control groups to believe that gender discrimination would hamper their career prospects, and felt less angry about ongoing gender inequality.

– However, there was no evidence among the ‘lean-in’ groups that exposure to the resilience messages and activities gave them any sort of psychological boost.

The academics write: “The most consistent explanation for the negative effect of neoliberal feminism on women’s collective action intentions was that it lowers perceived gender discrimination.”

The irony of neoliberal feminism is that its positive aim (empowering women) obscures its unintended adverse consequences. The inference from the research is that we need to invert the old saw ‘Don’t get mad, get even’. If women want to get even, it seems, they need to get mad.

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