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Why Professors at Duke Think Sheryl Sandber’s ‘Lean In’ Strategy May Do More Harm Than Good for Women

Her advice to “lean in” puts the responsibility of changing workplace behaviors entirely on the shoulders of women.

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BY Aine Cain - 07 Aug 2018

Why Professors at Duke Think Sheryl Sandber's 'Lean In' Strategy May Do More Harm Than Good for Women

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

  • Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg famously advocated for women to take charge in the workplace in her 2013 book "Lean In."
  • Recently, a group of Duke University psychology professors conducted studies centering on the idea of women "leaning in" at work.
  • They found that, while advising women to "lean in" can empower individuals, the concept can have a subtle but troubling side effect.
  • Touting an individual's professional success as the solution to workplace inequality, as opposed to advocating for widespread policy change, puts the onus of achieving gender equality exclusively on women.
  • The concept of "leaning in," therefore, can function as a distraction from the macro-level issues of workplace discrimination and exclusionary office policies and promotion practices.

Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg changed the whole conversation around women in the workplace with just two words: "Lean in."

The Facebook COO's famous 2013 book encouraged women to hone their negotiation tactics, strive to fill leadership roles at work, and tackle their professional lives full-throttle. The idea was that, by super-charging their own careers, women could collectively overcome the gender gap in the office.

Sandberg's message attracted controversy from the get-go. The Facebook exec addressed the criticism that her book left out underprivileged women back in 2016, telling CBS that, "I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home."

But an upcoming report set to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology may cast doubts upon whether or not telling women to "lean in" is a good idea at all.

A series of studies suggests advice to 'lean in' is distracting, at best

The group of Duke University psychology professors summarized their recent findings in Harvard Business Review. During a series of six studies involving 2,000 participants, the researchers sought to compare the effect of encouraging women to adopt the individualistic, "DIY" approach espoused by the "lean in" movement and the effect of highlighting the structural and systemic disadvantages that women face in the workplace.

For the study, participants all read excerpts from "Lean In" and listened to portions of Sandberg's TED talks. One group consumed messages from Sandberg suggesting that women should be more confident and less risk-averse in the office. The other group's excerpts from the Facebook COO's work highlighted the "structural and societal factors" that held women back at work.

Participants who read "lean in"-oriented messages from the book-- as opposed to the excerpts indicating a need for broader policy shifts -- were more likely to feel that women ought to solve the problem of workplace inequality themselves. The research team wrote in the Harvard Business Review that, on the positive side, participants exposed to the "DIY" themed excerpts expressed a belief that women have the power to clobber workplace inequality, but added that these participants "were also more likely to believe that women are responsible for the problem -- both for causing it, and for fixing it."

The group of participants who read "lean in" messaging also were less likely to support implementing structural changes to help women better succeed in the workplace.

Essentially, the mantra of "lean in" is a distraction at best, and subtle, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps victim-blaming at worst, according to the report.

The systemic problems facing women in the workplace have no clear solution

That being said, the team added that their findings required independent replication in order to be considered anything other than initial results.

"We are by no means suggesting Sandberg intended to blame women for inequality," the team wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

The researchers wrote that Sandberg's book provides ample doses of both approaches. Her "lean in" ethos encourages women to thrive on an individual basis, but Sandberg also includes hard data and studies highlighting the macro-level workplace problems that women face across the board.

Myriad factors like biases at the negotiation table, quiet but widespread sexist assumptions, and the trade-offs and penalties that come with starting a family factor into workplace inequality.

One woman's professional success can pave the way for greater inclusively in a specific company or industry. But that doesn't mean that broader, systemic shifts in workplace and public policy aren't required in order to combat issues like subtle discrimination and restrictive parental leave policies in the US.

Sandberg herself has spoken out about systemic problems facing women in the workplace. Last year, she criticized male executives who appoint token women and minorities to leadership positions as a band aid for otherwise homogeneous companies, Business Insider's Julie Bort reported.

In a 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed, she also pointed out the double standard when it comes to assertiveness in the workplace.

"We expect men to be assertive, look out for themselves, and lobby for more -- so there's little downside when they do it," Sandberg wrote. "But women must be communal and collaborative, nurturing and giving, focused on the team and not themselves, lest they be viewed as self-absorbed. So when a woman advocates for herself, people often see her unfavorably."

And she has commented on the lack of progress for women at work, although she expressed optimism that a wave of female leadership in business and politics could be on the horizon.

"Overall, we are not seeing a major increase in female leadership in any industry or in any government in the world, and I think that's a shame," Sandberg told USA Today.

-- This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

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