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.