Why it Can Be Harder for Women to Lean In 

Why it Can Be Harder for Women to Lean In 

As women, we’re often told that the key to success is “leaning in,” or having the confidence to go after new opportunities. Early in my career, my friends and I would re-watch Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk about how women need to take our seats at the table as a rallying cry before we asked for well-earned raises or promotions. 

While “leaning in” often does help women gain opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise, it also has its limitations. I think of the workplace biases that women face as like seatbelts strapping us back in our seats, making it harder for us to lean in.  

In speaking with over a hundred women for my book, Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations are Up Against, I found that women across industries described three frequent barriers that blocked or stalled their careers, and made it challenging to lean in.

The “Prove it Again” Phenomenon

Research shows that men are promoted based on potential, even if they don’t have as much experience; by contrast, women often have to “prove it again and again and again,” promoted at slower rates with more qualifications. 

Part of the problem is that men and women are often recognized for different things. For example, in one fictionalized case study in my book, we meet two characters named Haley and Chad. Haley is described by her manager as the “glue” of the office with an infectious smile (not something that would lead to a promotion), and Chad is praised for exceptional data skills, even though Haley is stronger with data. 

These types of biases can be exhibited by both male and female leaders; across all genders, we’ve been influenced by many of the same cultural messages that lead to unconscious biases. 

In-Group Favoritism vs. Out-Group Bias 

When we think of bias, what we often have in mind is what’s called “out-group” bias, or when someone is excluded for being different.  However, what’s more common is “in-group favoritism,” where men receive a leg up because male leaders see a younger version of themselves in junior men. 

At many organizations, even when women are well-represented overall, top C-suite leaders are disproportionately male. Often, these male leaders don’t deliberately exclude women out of malice, but women notice that male leaders seem more comfortable developing rapport with junior men, more likely to stop by their desks to make small talk or invite them to golf. This can lead to what psychologists call a “halo effect,” where a positive impression from social conversation leads to a positive feeling about the colleague that extends to their work—even if the leader doesn’t know much about it. 

The Goldilocks Dilemma

At all levels, women can find themselves criticized both for being “too feminine” and “too masculine”—always needing to walk a complicated tight-rope in between.  

However, this Goldilocks dilemma is especially difficult for women as they become managers. Female leaders are expected to be more accessible than male leaders. Additionally, female bosses are viewed more negatively when they provide criticism compared to male bosses, even though providing critical feedback is a necessary part of the manager’s role.  

How Can Women Overcome These Biases? 

When women aren’t aware of the barriers they face, they can end up blaming themselves or not seeking the support they need. Being aware of these biases—and others—that women face is the first step to combatting them. 

While all employees benefit from collecting outcomes data and recording their accomplishments to advocate for promotions and raises, this is especially important for women and other marginalized groups to do.  

By getting into a habit of networking and relationship-building, women can ensure that multiple leaders at their employer organizations—and more broadly in their industries—are aware of the value they bring.

Finally, as women evaluate whether their organization is somewhere they’d want to work long-term, they should assess the employer’s willingness to adopt new practices to ensure equity. Many employers have adopted adopt competency-based hiring and evaluation processes designed to mitigate bias. Formal salary reviews by HR can address pay discrepancies. And bystander intervention trainings can ensure all employees understand how to recognize and respond to bias when it occurs.

This guest post was authored by Melanie Ho

Melanie Ho has been applauded by Film Daily as “one of the most empowering authors and visual artists right now.” Melanie’s career has also included serving as a consultant to hundreds of university presidents, vice presidents, and deans; teaching literature at UCLA while earning her PhD in English; and being a political activist and organizer.

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