Job, if you can’t “lean in”, is it your fault?

Come on, you can do it, lean in!

Motivating people to overcome obstacles can make them stronger. If you think about it, it makes sense. In fact, management schools often favour the idea of “empowering people” through their content. In her book “Lean in”, Sheryl Sandberg encourages women to make a step forward in life. Many companies cite it as part of their key diversity and inclusion messaging, in an attempt to help people to overcome gender discrimination and boost workplace diversity. Her message is so popular that her 2010 TED talk has been watched 8 million times! Sandberg offers a recipe that encourages women to raise their hands, to raise their tone of voice and to trust themselves. Essentially, her message is: even if the world is not tailor-made for you, you can still overcome obstacles and succeed.

What’s wrong with this message?

It’s a question that Duke University researchers worked on. They asked 2,000 people about their experiences when they were advised to “Lean in” compared to seeing objective data about the gender gap in the workplace (for example, data on the pay-gap, work-life balance and the glass ceiling).

The results were surprising… and also quite worrying. Participants that were exposed to empowerment messaging believed that women could do it. But the women also believes that it was their responsibility to resolve gender discrimination. Some women even believed that they somehow caused the discrimination. 

Harvard Business Review published the research results, suggesting that “enabling” women generates an illusion of control which is not realistic. The research proves that women cannot, individually or directly, resolve the challenges that discrimination brings. It’s the system itself that needs to change.

What happens next?

“People don’t love injustice and when they can’t adjust it in a simple way, they make a mental exercise to make it more acceptable. Blaming victims for their sufferings is a typical example: that person must have done something to deserve what happened”.

As women, how often have we been asked to follow instructions such as:

Be assertive, but lower your tone of voice

Ask for a pay raise, but do it with kindness

Be clever, but don’t feel superior

Show your skills, but don’t be intellectually intimidating

Be ambitious, without bothering with excesses of self-esteem

Dress nicely, without standing out!

As the journalist Quartz Ephrat Livni said:

“We cannot and must not absorb facetious messaging that says we created and can fix failings that are not of our own making—and that we might somehow shape-shift until we fit perfectly into fundamentally flawed workplaces.”

This article was originally written by Riccarda Zezza for the Alley Oop blog. You can see the original article here.