Leaning In: Results needed, not celebrity branded hot air

by Mar 24, 20136 comments

Is Leaning In celebrity branded hot air?

It has been almost impossible to go online or pick up a newspaper in the last couple of weeks without reading about Sheryl Sandberg’s tips on “leaning in”. How and why the advancement of women in the workplace has stalled  And it has indeed stalled. The barrage of verbiage on the matter has been overwhelming, with global pundits, male and female, wading in ad nauseam, analysing almost every word and angle in the minutest detail. The reaction to the book itself has perhaps fascinated me more than the issues it raises. But will Lean In endure? I’m not so sure.

Statistics from any developed economy would suggest that since anti-discrimination legislation hit the statute books 40 years ago, although changes have been taking place, there is still a disconnect for women between some wider cultural developments and workplace practises. 60% of graduates are women, yet they occupy only a small percentage of senior roles. You don’t have to be a Think Tank whizz  to see that something is clearly out of sync.

Sandberg’s book is a vocal rallying call to to examine thoroughly all the underlying elements of this conundrum. As one of the most powerful women globally, with a reported $500 million fortune, she has leveraged her international clout to stimulate this discussion. But to what extent is all the hoopla around Lean In, celebrity branded hot air?

Counter views

Despite opening a global debate, the world is still not without it’s cynics. Some women claim that they have leaned in so far that they have almost fallen over. Others suggest that organisations are so leaned back to be almost horizontal. Another contingent suggest that these high profile initiatives, with change from the top down led by multi-millionaire women, skirt over the core question that what is currently on offer, may not be worth leaning in for. It has not gone unnoticed that both Wal-Mart and Citibank are on the Lean In Board of Advisers. Neither company has an unblemished track record with regard to their female employees working in the trenches. They are now being whitewashed via their alignment to what has within weeks become the hot global Lean In brand.

Old chestnut

Let’s not forget either that this conversation has truthfully been going on for years without her. However, her celebrity persona has allowed her to re-ignite it, but more importantly make it highly visible and give it instant credibility.

What she is doing is simply re-branding an existing message.

We live in a culture where celebrity endorsement influences many of our basic decisions and thought processes: the face creams we use, the food we buy and the cars we’re driving. Sandberg says there is gender imbalance, thus it is so. Her call to action has produced an almost evangelical response from a group of born-again feminists who have now seen the diversity light.

The book has undoubtedly acted as the flint needed to create that vital spark to ignite a floundering and tired discussion. That can only be good. But reciting the number of “likes” on the Lean In Facebook page (2.2 million August 2021) starting countless monthly Lean In circles with their down-loadable Lean In circle kits, cutesy potluck dinners and “book club /volunteer approach“, will I’m sure be jolly good fun, but will have little real value if nothing concrete comes of it all. What we are seeing, as anyone who was around then knows well, is something similar to the consciousness raising activities of the 60s and 70s.

Talking in “circles” has little value without sustainable results. This is really peer mentoring by another name.

It now up to everyone involved in any part of this process to fan those flames to stimulate the right level of engagement to produce meaningful outcomes from those many discussions. More is needed from this fire than celebrity endorsed and branded hot air and smokescreens. And talking in “circles” .

What we need real systemic change and at a faster pace and leaning in doesn’t do that. It’s yet another initiative to encourage women to change to fit in to male coded environments, without examining and questioning the values and behaviours on which those cultures are based. The situation is typically nuanced with some women as well as some men needing competence coaching and training. But leaning in will probably not result in very much more than a lot of  circular talk. Organisations will still need to change. But will they?

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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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