gender diversity

Stop Telling Women to Lean In

We think that women are advancing, but are they really? We think that women just need to work a bit harder to get those top positions and we just need a few more women in the pipeline in order to balance out the numbers.

But this is simply not true. Despite the promises of feminism, women today are by no stretch equal or powerful. Women continue to fall behind at work, at home and in society, and men are continuing to leap ahead. Men continue to hold the bulk of power while women are encouraged to take part-time work or stay at home and care for children, even though many have no option but to work.

In her best-selling book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, beautifully describes the many barriers that hold women back and recounts the depressing statistics about women falling off corporate ladders. In her Preface, Sandberg lists the obstacles women face, including “blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment. Too few workplaces offer the flexibility and access to child care and parental leave that are necessary for pursuing a career while raising children. Men have an easier time finding mentors and sponsors who are invaluable for career progression. Plus women have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do.”

Yet Sandberg chose to focus on women rather than institutional barriers. She urges women to be tougher, stronger and more courageous if they want to get ahead. As she says, “I am encouraging women to address the chicken [individual barriers] but I fully support those who are focusing on the egg [institutional barriers].” Like other women before her, she encourages women to work harder and “find balance” rather than focus on the corporate culture, systems, policies and our outdated ideas about women that prevent women from being truly powerful.

Unlike Sandberg, I do not ask women to become better climbers. I ask them to look at the ladder and question how it was built. Why is there a ladder at all and why is it so hard for women to climb? Why does it hold so many women back and yet propel so many men to the top?

Although self-help can be beneficial, history shows that this is not enough, and it may actually be causing the stagnation. As women go about “leaning in,” the bigger and more resistant barriers facing women remain untouched. Not only do corporate institutions and policies flourish, but by continuing to call it a “women’s issue” rather than a societal or corporate issue, we burden women with both the responsibility and burden of trying to make things better.

— This is an excerpt from Lean Out: How to Dismantle the Corporate Barriers That Hold Women Back. Available on Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0993984045

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