Is 'Lean In' Misleading?

Asking women to tackle workplace inequality makes it appear to be their fault.
Is Lean In Misleading?

Asking women to tackle workplace inequality by changing their own behavior could both hurt and help efforts to address the problem, according to new research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina. The study was conducted by Aaron Kay and Gráinne Fitzsimons, both professors of management, and PhD student Jae Yun Kim.

The researchers found that when individual women are more assertive— that is, when they “lean in,” as suggested in a book by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg—people might come to believe that women can solve inequality on their own. Not only that, people might think women are at fault for, and have the responsibility for fixing, gender inequality in the workplace.

“Leaning in could be good advice for anyone, and we’re not saying it doesn’t work,” Kay says. “But the way this message is being communicated and interpreted might be causing unforeseen problems.”

Kay, Fitzsimons, and Kim conducted six studies to determine whether exposure to “lean in” messages affected how almost 2,000 participants felt about women’s roles in causing and solving gender inequality. In one study, participants first read Sandberg’s description of gender imbalance. Next, some read about the external barriers facing women while others read about Sandberg’s “lean in” approach to overcoming internal barriers. Additional groups read both or neither.

The researchers found that people who read the “lean in” messages were more likely to believe women could solve the problem. They were also significantly more likely to believe it is the responsibility of women to solve the problem, and that women caused the problem in the first place. This was true even if they also read about the structural challenges women face at work. The researchers obtained the same results when participants watched the relevant portions of Sandberg’s TED talk on the subject instead of reading about it.

The researchers also presented participants with a real-world example—a news story about how software code written by female engineers at Facebook can take longer to be approved than code written by men. Again, participants who read the “lean in” messages were more likely to believe women caused the problem and to hold them responsible for fixing it. They were also less likely to think that structural changes at the company—such as having managers review code without knowing who wrote it, or training managers on addressing unconscious bias—would make a difference.

These results indicate the complexity of the gender inequality issue, notes Fitzsimons. The challenge now, she says, is to figure out how to present information about inequality in ways that don’t cause people to blame women—and don’t allow them to “wash their hands of any need to change the way they do business.”

“The Effects of Lean In” is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.