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Five years on from Sandberg's book, women are still being punished for 'leaning in'

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·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Jolanda Flubacher
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Jolanda Flubacher

Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg famously advocated for women to take charge in the workplace in her book Lean In, published in 2013.

Her point? To encourage women to get ahead in the world of work by asserting themselves in the office, and “leaning in” to their ambitions. The book was a huge success, selling 600,000 copies within three months – and topping the New York Times bestseller list.

But five years on, leaning in and reaping the benefits seem more easily said than done.

The facts remain hard and clear. If you are a woman working at a large UK company, you are most likely working at a firm which, on average, pays men more than women. According to the gender pay gap findings from earlier this year, women are also paid less when it comes to bonuses. There is a serious lack of women in positions of leadership, with just 24% of senior roles held by women around the world, according to Catalyst.

At face value, leaning in – negotiating for promotions, higher pay and better jobs – seems like a decent solution. This might not be the case, though.

Sandberg suggests women could help shrink the gender pay gap by negotiating more effectively for higher pay, but women who do negotiate face a dilemma. Unlike men, they have to weigh up the benefits of negotiating more pay against the social consequences of having negotiated.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles and her colleagues found across several studies that women were more likely to be penalised – treated negatively or seen as less likeable – if they asked for pay rises.

It is down to gender stereotyping, the researchers explained, as women may face a backlash for adopting “traditionally unfeminine” behaviour to get ahead in the workplace. This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t ask to be paid more, of course. It’s just that there’s more to the issue than confidence.

“Fix-the-women solutions to gender issues often fail to take into consideration the gendered social context out of which gender differences in behaviour emerge,” Bowles and her colleagues summarised.

Likewise, Sandberg argues that making yourself heard at work is crucial in getting ahead in your career, yet research has shown women who speak up also face being penalised.

A 2012 study by psychological scientist Victoria L. Brescoll of Yale University found that even women in positions of power are likely to face a backlash in the workplace for speaking.

In one of her studies, participants were asked to read brief biographies of male or female CEOs who were described as either talking much more or much less than others in power, and to evaluate their suitability as leaders and their overall competence.

When female CEOs spoke often, their leadership ratings took a dive compared to when they were described as quiet. In contrast, male CEOs received a boost in ratings.

And even if women do speak up, there is no guarantee they will be heard. A 2016 report published in the Academy of Management Journal found that when women put forward positive ideas or solutions, they often go ignored. By contrast, men who engage in the same behaviour are generally rewarded with increased leadership and influence.

Another key issue with the concept of leaning in is that it may prompt people to view women as the problem, as well as the solution. Earlier this year, a series of studies by Duke University psychology professors found participants who read “lean in” orientated messages – instead of messages which called for a need for broader policy shifts – were more likely to feel that women ought to solve the issue of workplace inequality themselves.

In fact, they were “more likely to believe that women are responsible for the problem – both for causing it, and for fixing it.”

Earlier this month, former first lady Michelle Obama summed up the problem with leaning in. “That whole, ‘So you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time,” she said, speaking at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.”

Mary Pharris, director of business development & partnerships at FairyGodBoss, says that their research indicates that 66% of women don’t feel like the workplace hasn’t improved for women in 2018. Perhaps instead of just leaning in, then, we need structural changes to address the pay gap, the lack of women in leadership and the other challenges women face at work.

“What this signals is that despite ongoing conversations around workplace harassment, creating better culture, and leaning in, these conversations aren’t translating to actions,” Pharris says. “While continuing to discuss these issues is incredibly important, employers and employees need to work together to create substantive, positive change for all women in the workplace.”

To listen to more workplace tips, download Yahoo Presents Its a Jungle Out There podcast on Apple Podcasts, ACast, or Google podcasts to listen while on the go.