This research explores the “Lean in” ideology of women’s empowerment, which suggests that women can reduce gender inequality in the workplace by overcoming internal barriers like lack of confidence or risk-aversion. Through five experimental studies, the researchers found that this type of women’s empowerment messaging increases people’s perceptions that women have the ability to solve gender inequality, but also perceptions that women are responsible for both causing and solving gender inequality. While self-improvement messaging could be empowering to some women, it can also lead to harmful societal beliefs that women – and not unequal systems, structures, and institutions – are to blame for their marginalization.
An oft-mentioned solution for reducing gender inequality in the workplace is that women need to improve themselves by taking more risks, being more confident, and speaking up. Sheryl Sandberg made this idea widely known in her 2013 book Lean In. However, since this approach focuses on individuals rather than systemic issues like sexism, it places a burden on women to fix gender inequality.
This research predicted that such messages about women’s empowerment would result in increased perceptions that women have the power to change gender inequality, that they have the responsibility to address it, and that they are in fact causing it by not improving themselves. The authors undertook five studies that tested these predictions using experimental research designs. Each study recruited participants through online platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. The researchers asked participants questions about their perceptions of gender inequality after they learned about “internal barriers” to gender equality, such as women’s lack of confidence or risk aversion, or “external barriers”, such as discrimination and sexism. This brief focuses on Studies 2-5, as Study 1 was a preliminary correlational study.
Study 2 and Study 3: Study 2 asked participants to read selected passages from the book Lean In. Some participants read about external barriers to gender equality, some read about internal barriers, some read about both, and the control group read no text. Study 3 was similar, but it exposed participants to audio clips from a TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg on women’s empowerment instead of text. Audio clips discussed either external or internal barriers. Participants then answered questions about gender equality. In both studies, participants who were exposed to messaging about internal barriers perceived women as significantly more empowered to change inequality than those who did not. However, they also held women more responsible for solving inequality and more responsible for causing it.
Study 4: This study used a real workplace context to examine how people perceive various gender inequality interventions. Participants were assigned to various conditions: they were given a text to read about internal barriers to gender equality or a text about both internal and external barriers, while the control group received no text. Subsequently, participants were given part of an article about real events at Facebook. The paragraph stated that female software engineers’ code at Facebook was rejected more often rejected than that of their male peers.
The participants who only read about internal barriers attributed responsibility to women engineers to solve this problem significantly more than the other groups did. They also perceived women engineers as the cause of the problem more than others. Further, participants who had read about internal barriers (including the group who read about both types of barriers) believed more than the control group that an effective intervention would be for women engineers to change themselves through workshops and training. They also perceived that structural changes, like doing blind reviews of code, would be less effective.
Studies 5a and 5b: These studies explored whether women’s empowerment messaging can be conveyed without eliciting perceptions that women are responsible for inequality. In Study 5a, some participants read about internal barriers, some read about how women’s internal barriers are a result of external barriers, and the control group read no text. Study 5b used similar conditions and added a text about internal and external barriers (but did not state one was caused by the other).
Participants who read about how women’s internal barriers are caused by external barriers perceived that women are responsible for and cause gender inequality significantly less than those who only read about internal barriers. They also held women less responsible for solving gender inequality than those who read about internal and external barriers. However, they did not perceive that women are empowered to change gender inequality more than the control group.
Women’s empowerment messages in workplaces may increase harmful perceptions that women are to blame for gender inequality —Workplaces that emphasize the need for women’s self-improvement may create perceptions that it is only women who need to change, not systems and societal attitudes. In fact, it is unproven that women acting more confident or otherwise changing their behaviour will result in gender equality. To mitigate harm, messaging about women’s empowerment should convey how internal barriers are caused by external barriers like systemic sexism and discrimination. They can also emphasize the need for structural change and collective action for equality.
Empowerment messages may have similar effects for any group that faces oppression and marginalization – The studies here show that when a message conveys a potential solution to inequality, people may conflate this solution with a cause, and attribute responsibility for inequality to people who did not create the problem. It is important that organizations, policymakers and leaders recognize that these empowerment messages are common and can be harmful for people’s perceptions of any group facing marginalization, such as racialized, low-income, immigrant, and other communities.
Kim, J.Y., Fitzsimons G.M. and 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000129