The Unintended Effects of Lean In

Fuqua professors study perceptions of workplace inequality

August 18, 2018
Diversity, Management
Professors Aaron Kay and Grainne Fitzsimons studied perceptions of workplace inequality

Asking women to tackle workplace inequality by changing their own behavior could hurt as well as help efforts to address the problem, according to new research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Professors Aaron Kay and Gráinne Fitzsimons found focusing on individual women being more assertive -- leaning in -- rather than addressing structural obstacles in society, could cause people to believe not only that women can solve inequality, but also that it’s their responsibility, and might even be their fault.

“Leaning in could be good advice for anyone, and we’re not saying it doesn’t work,” Kay said. “But the way this message is being communicated and interpreted might be causing unforeseen problems.”

Kay is a social psychologist interested in workplace issues. He was curious about why efforts to address gender inequality in employment haven’t been successful, with only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies having women as CEOs, despite a very public focus on diversity at many firms.

“They’re trying to do it, but they’re not making as much progress as they may have hoped” he said. “The issues are trickier than people tend to think.”

The lean in approach, popularized by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, suggests women address the problem themselves by taking the reins and forging ahead. As more people do it, the thinking goes, the power structure will change.

Fitzsimons, a psychologist who studies motivation, said the lean in idea is popular because it speaks of potential rather than failure, and appeals to western ideas about the power of the individual.

“But the downside is that it can lead to perceptions that it’s women’s responsibility to solve the problem, and that they contributed to the problem,” she said. “These kinds of messages can lead to a loss of support for structural changes that can address it more widely.”

It’s an easy mistake to make, the researchers said, because the distinctions are subtle.

“Talking about what women can do, it’s hard not to hear that as what they should do. That potentially confuses a solution for the cause,” Kay said. “If you can fix something, there are psychological reasons why people might infer that you caused it.”

Kay and Fitzsimons – along with Ph.D. student Jae Yun Kim – tested whether lean in messages changed people’s beliefs about gender inequality. The research, “The Effects of Lean In,” are forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers randomly exposed almost 2,000 participants across six studies to lean in messages and tested how that affected what they thought about women’s role in causing gender inequality, as well as their responsibility for fixing  the causes, and how it should be solved.

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.

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 problems women face at work.

Further study found 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 took 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.

“This tells us something about how the general population is seeing this problem,” Kay said.

Fitzsimons said the issue needs a blended approach.

“It’s more complex than people want to make it out to be,” she said. “The challenge now is how to present this information in ways where people feel more empowered, but don’t also feel they can blame a woman for the inequality she is facing, and thus wash their hands of any need to change the way they do business.”


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