Illustration: Ashley Siebels
In 2013, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told women to “lean in,” advice that aimed to empower working women to take control of their careers.
Her book — “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” — gave women individual DIY solutions on how to get negotiate better, get recognized by their bosses and move up in their careers. The book was a worldwide hit, but five years after its success, behavioral scientists from Duke University are casting doubt on the success within its premise.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Grainne Fitzsimons, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim summarized their forthcoming results for Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They found that when they recruited 2,000 Americans to actually sit down and read or listen to Sandberg’s “lean in” advice, it did help them believe that women had the power to take charge of their career.
But one unintended side effect of this empowering message is that it also helped them believe that women are responsible for causing and fixing the problems they may face at work.
New research casts doubt on the use of the ‘lean in’ message
Across six studies, participants were randomly assigned to either read or listen to the parts of “Lean In” that tell women to use individual solutions — to be more ambitious, risk-takers who demand their seat at the table — or other parts of “Lean In” that acknowledge structural factors like discrimination that can hold women back.
The ones that listened to the individual solutions “Lean In” advised came to believe that women were wholly responsible for causing and solving their problems at work. When they read that Facebook female engineers get their code more scrutinized than their male peers, they were more likely to think that it was the female engineers’ responsibility to fix this result, and that structural changes like making code review anonymous were not worthwhile.
“We are by no means suggesting Sandberg intended to blame women for inequality,” the researchers conclude in HBR. “But we do fear that Lean In’s main message — which emphasizes individual action as a way to address gender inequality — may lead people to view women as having played a greater role in sustaining and even causing gender inequality.”
Why do we start putting more of the burden on women to fix systemic inequities like gender pay gaps or managers’ biases? Because being confronted with the reality that the workplace is not a meritocracy is unpleasant. We would rather pin the blame on one person.
“Humans don’t like injustice, and when they cannot easily fix it, they often engage in mental gymnastics to make the injustice more palatable,” the researchers wrote. “Blaming victims for their suffering is a classic example — e.g., that person ‘must have done something’ to deserve what’s happened to them.”
Yes, leaning in does empower women to believe they can handle whatever comes their way, but in the long-run, it should not be their individual responsibility to solve all the systemic problems — from gender pay gaps to needing to take family leave — they may face at work.
“For employers, we would suggest a consistent emphasis on the role that the organization plays, and not emphasize women’s role in fixing the problem,” Fitzsimons told Ladders. “That kind of language seems to suggest to people that women are to blame, which reduces the chance that they’ll endorse more structural/organization-level fixes.”
Even Sandberg herself has acknowledged that there are holes in her book’s argument. In 2016, after the loss of her husband, she wrote a Facebook post that acknowledged the privilege of having a partner to help out at home: “I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home,” she wrote. “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.”