The 'Lean In' Lie

During an appearance for her Becoming book tour over the weekend, Michelle Obama frankly shared her thoughts on work life balance and finding a way to succeed in both your marriage and career.

“And I tell women that it’s not equal—that whole 'so you can have it all'? That whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that sh*t doesn’t work all the time.”

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg popularized the "lean in" concept with her 2013 book, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," arguing that women should take assertive steps to overcome workplace inequities and obtain leadership roles. Critics have said that the ‘lean in’ concept downplays how environments work to hold women back. It also ignores the intersection of sexism, racism, classism, ableism and homophobia by assuming that if all women follow the same advice they will receive the same benefits, this is simply not the case.

White, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle class women's experiences of organizations shouldn't be the only experience we consider when it comes to gender inequality at work.

A series of studies suggests that the advice to 'lean in' is “distracting, at best”, as published by a group of Duke University psychology professors in Harvard Business Review. During a series of six studies involving 2,000 participants, the researchers analyzed the effects of encouraging women to adopt the individualistic, "DIY" approach espoused by the 'lean in' movement versus highlighting the systemic and structural disadvantages that women face in the workplace.

Their study found that: “People who read or listened to the DIY messages were more likely to believe women have the power to solve the problem. That, on its own, may very well be good news. However, they were also more likely to believe that women are responsible for the problem — both for causing it, and for fixing it."

Even the 2018 Lean In, Women in the Workplace report even recognizes that ‘leaning in’ hasn’t really made much impact and that our efforts are much better spent focusing on creating work environments that support equality. The report states, "Companies report that they are highly committed to gender diversity. But that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress. The proportion of women at every level in corporate America has hardly changed. Progress isn’t just slow. It’s stalled." If leaning in really worked this wouldn't be the case.

As I’ve underscored in many of my podcasts and articles in the past, women already have everything they need to succeed at work. If we want to advance gender equality we need to address the systemic and cultural issues that prevent both men and women from achieving full equality in the workplace.

We would love to hear how your company is taking action to create cultures of equality in your workplace? So, please share your story here

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