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Lean In... To What?

Even if you have not read it, you likely know the headline message of Sheryl Sandburg’s 2013 book “Lean In”. She tells women to “lean in” to leadership. The idea is meant to be empowering for women – encouraging women to go after leadership opportunities so that they can advance to have the stellar careers they deserve. So why did it generate such backlash, and what should women be doing instead?


We understand why this message was so appealing: “lean in” gives women permission to be ambitious and to strive for leadership roles. In this way, it seems to invite women to fight against prevalent gender stereotypes. But in reducing women’s lack of representation in leadership to a lack of ambition, it sends a more sinister message. It tells women, and men, and organizational leaders that the only thing standing in the way of getting more women into leadership is … the women themselves. It implies that we can understand women’s unequal career outcomes in organizations as being the result of women’s lack of interest, motivation, and effort. It comes down to a “fix the women” approach – when women aren’t the problem. Instead, the self-reinforcing system of gender stereotyping and bias that they are being asked to lean into is the real problem.

A lot of the organizations we work with have equal numbers of women and men at the graduate level. But move up the organizational hierarchy, and the number of women drops - a trend that continues all the way to the top. This is called the “leaky pipeline.” Where do the women go? Some women move into different, often secondary roles (i.e., those that command less prestige and money); some women choose to remain at lower levels, some change careers or strike out on their own, and some leave the workforce entirely.

So, is the problem women’s ambition – or lack thereof? NO! These differences are the product of gendered socialization, a process by which society teaches people what it means to be a woman or a man, including what types of behaviors are typical and appropriate. Because we begin being socialized into our gender before we are even born, people mistake socialized differences for innate differences.

Take one big gender difference – competition. Supposedly women are less competitive than men. Some have argued that it is an innate difference, but research blows this argument apart. One of our favorite studies compares two different societies: the Maasai in Tanzania – a patriarchal society and the Khasi in India – a matriarchal society. The researchers invited members of these societies to play a game involving throwing tennis balls in a bucket. The participants could choose between two different versions of the game: one in which they were paid a certain amount of money regardless of how a randomly chosen competitor performed, and another in which they were paid triple that amount of money if they outperformed their competitor. They found that similar to Western societies, Maasai men opted to compete at roughly twice the rate as Maasai women. But the result was completely reversed among the Khasi – the matriarchal society. There, women chose the competitive version of the game more often than Khasi men. This study tells us something important about gender differences in preferences for competition: if you are a woman in a society where men hold more structural, social, and economic power than women, the odds of winning are stacked against you. Under these circumstances, women choosing not to compete is probably quite rational.

The bottom line: There is no biological switch in women’s brains that means they are less competitive. Something else is going on.


Why do women really lean out?

When people consider whether to pursue a career in a particular organization, field, or industry, they ask themselves the question “Do I belong here?” To answer that question, people look for information from the organization and the people within it. But the experience is very different for men and women.

For men, it is easy to answer the question of whether I belong here with a "yes".

When men look around in their organizations they likely see other men in senior roles, that people value men as effective contributors, and they may even hear men being positively stereotyped. They may not fit in as individuals, but they rarely (if ever) worry about whether they are likely to be successful or not simply based on the fact they are a man, because men are routinely valued and accepted in organizations.

In contrast, women often encounter a myriad of signals that undermine their belonging. Underrepresentation at higher levels is a big one – obviously, it is hard for women to imagine themselves progressing in the organization when there are few role models for them to look to. Negative stereotypes about women also undermine belonging. These can be communicated in a variety of ways. Perhaps your colleagues talk to each other about work, but only talk to you about family. This is a subtle type of stereotyping that women experience – alongside the overt stereotyping they often hear in colleagues’ and leaders’ comments. On top of everyday interactions, organizational signals can also undermine women’s belonging – think about products and experiences clearly not crafted with women in mind: mis-fitting company t-shirts, leadership training that lectures women on how to be more like men, and brochures that fail to feature any women.

The need to belong is a fundamental human need. So feeling like you don’t belong has significant negative consequences. In the short term, you will feel stressed and worried. But in the long term, uncertainty about belonging decreases people’s satisfaction with their organization, interest in pursuing careers in industries and fields where they are underrepresented, their desire to persist in their industries long term, as well as their willingness to put themselves forward for promotion and even their job performance.

Our own research confirms this. We studied women and men executives’ decisions to put themselves forward for a role with an organization that had rejected them in the past – a common occurrence when it comes to hiring for top leadership roles. We found that women were much less likely to put themselves forward for a role if they had been rejected by that organization in the past than men. We can definitively rule out that this was about lack of ambition on behalf of the women because we studied women executives - no one gets to the highest echelons of organizations without ambition. Instead, we found that women’s behaviour was shaped by their prior experiences with biased treatment. Specifically, we found that the more unfairly the women felt they were treated when they were rejected the first time, the less likely they were to put themselves forward for another role. Unfair treatment triggered the sense that they didn’t belong in the organization, leading them to pull out of future recruitment interactions. We can’t say this is irrational – an organization that treats you unfairly in the recruitment process when they are trying to woo you is unlikely to do any better in the day to day when they have won you over.

Given this, what should women lean into? We believe they should lean into themselves, their goals, and whatever it is that gives them a sense of joy and accomplishment in their careers. When women step away from systems that make them feel like they do not belong and into alternatives where they feel they can, that can be the right decision for them as individuals. Note: the leaky pipeline of women to leadership is absolutely a problem for organizations, and for society, which is why we both research these issues!


Take Action

If you find yourself leaning out, here is how you can inoculate yourself.

1. Decide what your goals are – and lean into those. Define multiple ways you can approach and achieve your goals. Be creative in your thought process: remember that most organizational career paths are set up to enable men to progress, usually with the assumption that they will not be the main caregiver to their children. Rather than trying to fit into this fundamentally masculine path, forge your own path by taking on the pieces of a traditional path that serve you and shedding those that do not fit your goals.

2. Seek out career sponsors and role models. A career sponsor is someone who will give you material support in your career (e.g., putting you forward for stretch assignments and promotions). A role model is someone you admire, whose career trajectory is something you would like to follow, whether or not they sponsor your career. Role models are essential for our identity development as leaders – the closer you can get to your role models, the more you will begin to crystalize your leadership identity.

3. Find people who can turn the gaslights off. Signals that undermine your belonging in an organization are often accompanied by rhetoric about how much women are valued. Does this scenario sound familiar? Your organization has lots of women’s networking groups and training for women who aspire to leadership, but it doesn’t actually promote women. And when you point out this disparity, you are told that actually, the organization errs on the side of positive discrimination towards women! In this situation, it only makes sense that you might begin to attribute your lack of ambition to a change in your preferences, rather than organizational barriers. It is essential that you create a community of people around you who can help you cut through this BS, who can see the glass escalators and glass ceilings, and will validate your experiences in this gender-biased environment.


If you see lots of women leaning out in your organization, here is how you can advocate for change.

1. Look for the exit points. There are likely critical career junctures in your organization where you see significant numbers of women leaving. One we see a lot is after women have children – often women change or exit careers at this critical juncture. Encourage your organization to track the leaky pipeline and identify the points where women leave. It’s essential to learn from both the women who stay and those who leave so that your organization can get a full picture of women’s experiences.

2. Change the conversation. Encourage your organization to frame the leaky pipeline as an organizational problem, not a women’s problem. When organizational leaders lament that women are leaving the leadership ladder, ask them what they are doing to keep women on track. For example, if a lot of women leave after they have children, the conversation should not be about why women leave - it should be about why your organization does not better accommodate people who have caregiving responsibilities.

3. Push for bold, integrated change. If the leaky pipeline was easy to solve, it wouldn’t exist. Most organizations tackle the leaky pipeline using solutions that have been proven to fail in other organizations! Consider that women’s network that your company sponsors – even if it provides high potential women with role models, it cannot alone keep women on the leadership path unless it is part of a suite of solutions. Organisations need to tackle the leaky pipeline in the formal and informal realms of organizations, from the bottom to the top, and from the moment they enter.


Get in Touch

Our favorite part of teaching is the end of class, when students come to chat with us about the content, share examples from their own lives, ask questions about what they are struggling with, and challenge our thinking. We invite you to do the same – let us know how this exercise worked for you, what you are still struggling with, and what questions we can answer in our upcoming podcasts and newsletters.

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