the KOAN method

Reading List

139 – Grainne Fitzsimmons, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim. Lean In’ Messagesand the Illusion of Control

Fitzsimmons, Grainne, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim. “’Lean In’ Messages
and the Illusion of Control.” Harvard Business Review. July 30, 1028.

In a world in which men dominate leadership roles, should we focus on changing the systems and structures that favor men at women’s expense? Or should we emphasize the tactics individual women can use to get ahead?

Our research explored this question. The first message, that it’s processes and organizations that need to change, has been gaining traction in more recent years. But the latter message has been inspiring and motivating to many people; it’s solutions-oriented and individualistic, appealing especially to Americans who tend to appreciate DIY solutions to societal problems. Plus, it has the benefit of seeming to help women now, rather than waiting decades — or even centuries — for societal change.

We suspected that by arguing that women can solve the problem themselves, advocates of the “DIY” approach may imply that women should be the ones to solve it — that it is their responsibility to do so. We also hypothesized that this message could risk leading people to another, potentially dangerous conclusion: that women have caused their own under-representation.

To test these ideas, we designed and ran a series of experiments, the results of which are forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Across six studies and approximately 2,000 American participants, we randomly assigned people to different experimental conditions to determine the effects of exposure to these ideas: what we’ll call here the structural approach to confronting sexism, and what we’ll call the DIY approach.

Participants read text taken directly from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, or listened to audio clips from Sandberg’s TED talks, that described the problem of women’s under-representation in leadership. While there are many books and resources out there that advocate a DIY approach to dealing with sexism, we chose to use Sandberg’s work because it is the most prominent, and the language of “lean in” has come to dominate this debate since her book was published five years ago. It also made good subject matter for our experiment because, while the title emphasizes the DIY approach, the book also extensively cites research on the structural problems women face. This allowed us to test the impact of both messages, while controlling for the messenger.

One group of participants read or listened to the DIY messages, which emphasized that women can act more ambitiously, speak more confidently, demand a seat at the table, and take more risks. The other group read or listened to sections that which emphasized structural and societal factors, such as discrimination. We also employed other control conditions.

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.

What’s more, these effects were even associated with people’s policy preferences. For example, in one of our studies, we described a recent problem reported by Facebook, in which managers rejected code written by female engineers more often than they rejected code written by male engineers. This is an ambiguous workplace problem, with possible roots both in women’s own underperformance and in manager bias. After being exposed to the DIY messages, our study participants viewed the female engineers as more responsible for both causing and fixing this problem, and in turn, less likely to think that structural changes at Facebook — such as having managers review code without knowing who wrote it, or training managers on bias — would be worthwhile.

There are important limitations to these findings. First, the findings are new, and thus have not yet been independently replicated by another lab; as such, they must be considered as just initial evidence. Second, Sandberg’s message was primarily oriented at American professional women in majority white companies, and thus, our findings are also limited to that context. We don’t yet know how empowerment messages affect the way people see women of color or women in working class jobs.

Nonetheless, as behavioral scientists who study how people understand and make sense of social inequality, we are troubled by these findings. Humans don’t like injustice, and when they cannot easily fix it, they often engage in mental gymnastics to make the injustice more palatable. Blaming victims for their suffering is a classic example — e.g., that person “must have done something” to deserve what’s happened to them.

We are by no means suggesting Sandberg intended to blame women for inequality. But we do fear that Lean In’s main message — which emphasizes individual action as a way to address gender inequality — may lead people to view women as having played a greater role in sustaining and even causing gender inequality.

These findings should worry anyone who believes we need structural and societal change to achieve gender equality in the workplace, including Sandberg, who has said as much. They suggest that the more we talk about women leaning in, the more likely people are to hold women responsible, both for causing inequality, and for fixing it.