Is Lean In really gaslighting?

Photo Courtesy of Drew Altizer.

Can you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to overcome an injustice you have faced? It really does depend. There’s a thriving debate about whether women should act as individuals or as part of a collective when fighting for equality. Quartz recently ran an insightful article about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and her related TED talk. While Lean In has received a great deal of critique from all corners, the article in Quartz argues that Sandberg negated systematic discrimination and told women they can personally overcome discrimination by taking individual action.

The Quartz article is titled All Career Advice for Women is a Form of Gaslighting. Gaslighting is when an abuser contradicts your understanding of reality, perhaps telling you the opposite of what you know is true, in a persistent manner that causes you to question your sanity. The key moment is when the abuser says you’re making things up in your head, or that you’re going crazy. If you’re in good shape, you identify that the problem is the abuser and take action. Otherwise, you could endure mistreatment for years. This definition doesn’t really match Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. Sandberg rightfully describes structural issues about how women’s careers are held back by the system, and then proceeds to offer tips to get ahead. It’s individuals engaging with society, and her advice is fair game.

What the Research Says

The Quartz article and a similar overview in Harvard Business Review summarize fresh research from December 2018. (For the full study, see Kim, J. Y., Fitzsimons, G. M., & Kay, A. C. (2018). Lean In messages increase attributions of women’s responsibility for gender inequality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 974-1001.)

The paper covers six large-sample studies that look at how people judge women’s inequality based on messages they are fed. The main variable is a polarized portrayal of Sheryl Sandberg’s critique. In one sample, researchers only quoted Sandberg’s analysis of systemic discrimination, and people who saw this message came away with the impression that sexism was society’s responsibility and that we need to band together to change the system. In the other sample, they only quoted Sandberg’s advice on what individual women can do to improve their lot in life and get past everyday sexism. In that case people perceived that it was women’s individual responsibility to overcome sexism, and that women themselves are the cause of the sexism.

This notion that women cause sexism is victim-blaming. The researchers attribute this thinking to a kind of mental gymnastics that people indulge in to get past the discomfort that there is injustice in the world. But logically, victim-blaming is malfunctioning thinking. If you take reality seriously you must perceive injustice as it occurs and contribute voice and effort to remedy it.

The academic article is most concerned that people can’t disentangle causation and solution in their own minds:

“Responsibility for the problem, in this model, describes responsibility for the origin of the problem, or causal responsibility. Responsibility for the solution, in contrast, describes responsibility for finding a solution, or control over outcomes. …the two forms of responsibility are conceptually distinct, but will often be correlated.” [Emphasis added]

And indeed the research did find that the two were mixed up together in peoples’ head such that people became individualists or collectivists based on what messages they were fed.

How the Story Evolved Beyond the Research

Then it gets sticky. There are individual reasons why some people thrive and others fail, much as there are systemic factors that change a person’s odds of doing well. Therefore, there is a combination of collective and individual strategies to pursue women’s equality. If a woman is born petite, she can take up kickboxing and stare down physical intimidation. Conversely, if a woman had chosen a career which streamed her into a lower-wage workplace, she could still sign a union card and participate in a group effort that improves her life chances.

Even if people agreed that inequality was societal, that does not prove that all solutions must be collective. Social justice advocates are quick to acknowledge that you need a diversity of tactics to achieve your goals. It is not authoritatively true that individualism and collectivism fall on some great divide, with one being good and the other being bad.   

We all need to aspire to a nuanced view, but that’s not where critics took things. The authors of the Quartz article and the study itself seize on the one-half of the research sample that deliberately skews Sandberg’s message as individualist, asserting that do-it-yourself (DIY) feminism is bad news.

These people are like those tourists that went around Europe taking snapshots of themselves at the locations of the fictional events in The Da Vinci Code. Although there are real individualists out there, in this study Sandberg’s self-loathing misogynistic individualism was an abstraction fabricated for research purposes only. Now, social critics are weighing-in that if choosing between two polar opposites – a fabricated individualism or a fabricated collectivism – women must favour collectivism as “correct.” But the problem is not that causation and solution are actually twinned and people must choose between individualism and collectivism. It’s that if we revert to polarized thinking, individualists tend to win.

How To Actually Become an Executive

There are better sources to turn to if you are trying to get promoted. Elsewhere in the TED Talks, Susan Colantuono delivers a talk entitled The Career Advice You Probably Didn’t Get. Women are already well-represented in middle-management, the question is why do they not get beyond that. Colantuono found that a good executive must be good at three things:

  1. Use the greatness in you (individual effectiveness)
  2. Engage the greatness in others (leadership)
  3. Achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes (business, strategic, and financial acumen)

The first two items are important for getting into middle management. When women are given career advice it is disproportionately in areas in the first two categories: self-promote, get a mentor, network, and speak up. Corporate talent and performance management systems are highly devoted to engaging the greatness in others, the second of the two competencies. That’s not going to make a difference for this problem.

That is because when assessing executive potential, the third item is valued twice as heavily as each of the other two. Women have truly been kept in the dark that they need to know more about finance and strategy in order to get an executive job. To clarify, society has withheld this information from women (i.e. the causation is collective). However, because each person’s best learning hinges on individual interest and personal goals, women need to determine that this advice is accurate and change their own course as individuals. That is, if becoming an executive is important to them.

The majority of executives (63%) perceive they do not have strategic alignment with everyone rowing in the same direction. Colantuono proposes that one of reasons why there is not strategic alignment is that those women who are half of middle management have not received clear messaging that they need to be “…focused on the business, where it’s headed, and their role in taking it there…” The culprit is not clever-and-efficient sexism, it’s incompetence but with a gendered filter. It’s squarely within the responsibility of men in power to remedy this issue, if they plan on being any good at their day jobs. Boards, CEOs, HR Executives, and individual managers must all change their mindsets in order to turn this around.

In this context it doesn’t seem at all like women have to choose between a collective or individual orientation. Women aspiring to executive roles need to have a clear sense of the collective vision of the organization and figure out how they’re going to lead their team towards that collective purpose. If anything is gaslighting, it is the deliberate misquoting of Sandberg’s work. In her TED talk, Sandberg spends a fair amount of time describing appropriate trade-offs between women’s household collective orientation and their workplace collective orientation. Indeed in May of 2016, a year after her husband died, Sandberg acknowledged that “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right…” She acknowledged this two years before the research that polarized her comments.

Women with busy careers make frequent trade-offs about when they will take care of themselves and when they will take care of the group. It will ever be circumstantial which decisions are the right ones, and which tactics will actually work. Nobody knows this better than the very social justice leaders who foster individual agency when they encourage vulnerable populations to pick up a picket sign and protest.

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