(Credits: Riccarda Zezza for Alley Oop- Il Sole 24 Ore, 24.08.18)
"You can do it, lean in!" Motivating and empowering (female?) employees to overcome obstacles and develop resilience is a good exercise, but where should we draw a line? Since the publication of Sheryl Sandberg's famous book “Lean in”, encouraging women to make a step forward has become one of the key messages to overcome discrimination at work. In the book and in the dedicated 2010 TED talk, watched over 8 million times and often used by companies in projects about diversity, Sandberg suggests ways to encourage women to raise their hands, to speak louder, to trust themselves. The core of the message is: the business world might not be tailor-made for women, but you can still overcome obstacles and succeed.
Doesn't anything here clash with common sense and reality?
Duke University’s researchers worked on this question, involving 2,000 people to assess the difference between being the recipient of a “Lean in” approach or receiving objective data about the conditions hindering women at work (pay-gap, work-life balance, glass ceiling, to name a few).
Results were surprising, and worrying. Participants exposed to empowerment messages had the belief that women can do it, but also that it is their responsibility to solve gender discriminations or even that they are the cause of these discriminations.
According to the Harvard Business Review, which published the results of the research , the approach of “enabling” women generates an illusion of control which is not realistic: it is shown that women cannot, individually and directly, solve all the challenges of a discriminatory system, but it is the system that has to be changed.
What happens is extremely human:
“People don’t love injustice and when they can’t fix it in a simple way, they mentally exercise to make it more acceptable. Blaming victims for their sufferings is a typical example: that person must have done something to deserve what happened” the researchers commented.
After all, would it be too challenging to follow instructions such as:
- Be assertive, but not too loud
- Ask for a pay raise, but kindly
- Be clever, but don’t feel superior
- Show your skills, but don’t be intellectually intimidating
- Be ambitious, but without excesses of self-esteem
- Dress nicely, but without standing out?
Quartz journalist Ephrat Livni frames it efficiently:
“We cannot and must not absorb facetious messaging that says we created and can fix failings that are not of our own making—and that we might somehow shape-shift until we fit perfectly into fundamentally flawed workplaces.”