Evidence is in for Lean In - and the results might surprise you

Reading Lean In.jpg

With over 2 million copies of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book sold and 32,000 Lean In Circles in 150 counties, there is no doubting the impact five years after publication.

I’m a big fan of evidence and facts, rather than simplistic advice following in the footsteps of Pfeffer and Sutton’s Evidence Based Management approach. Unfortunately it’s an unpopular view when it comes to gender in organisations. Too often what looks like sound advice lacks empirical evidence and results in wasted investment of both time and money.

Can you image how pleased I was to find an evidence based review of Lean In from the Academy of Management Perspectives in my inbox this morning - sad but true. It’s one of my favourite journals but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea so here are the highlights below and some thoughts on implications in the final section.

LEAN IN Part 1 - Women are holding themselves back

  1. Yes - there is good evidence for gender differences in self-efficacy - simply put it is the self-belief to organise and execute (Bandura, 1977). It’s essential for effective professionals who work to ambiguous standards (Empson, 2017) and is an important predictor of performance (Bandura 1997).

    Yes - impression management is different for women and has different consequences. It boils down to the difference in tactics used - assertive tactics for men and cooperative tactics for women (Guadagno and Cialdini, 2007).

    Maybe - women are speaking up, but they might not be being heard. Both genders can interrupt women more often than men (Hancock & Rubin, 2015) and women can be seen as over contributing if they make equal contributions to men. Women hold themselves back by making the adjustment to contribute less in order to “get along”.

    Maybe - evidence from organisational-based self esteem (OBSE) isn’t conclusive. A 2010 study found that gender was unrelated to OBSE. The organisational climate can make a difference and when few women are working in male dominated areas, their OBSE can go up as a result.

    Maybe - evidence doesn’t support women not putting their hand up for stretch assignments, but there is evidence of different career paths for women (kaleidoscope by Mainiero & Sullivan and zig-zag by O’Neil, Hopkins and Bilimoria, 2008 if you are interested).

    Nope - when it comes to differences in achievement motivation - both genders are more similar than different (Mednick & Thomas, 2008). This is interesting for professionals who are often highly motivated by achievement.

lean in part 2 - women leave before they leave

Nope - When professional women become pregnant they work harder to maintain their maintain their professional image (Little, Major, Hinojosa and Nelson, 2015). Interesting implications for this one in relation to burn out and return to work are explored at the end.

Nope - Two different studies have confirmed no difference between turnover rates of men and women.

lean in part 3 - women need to change their mindset and ignore negative messages

Nope - Decades of research on stereotype threat suggests that it’s unrealistic to ignore negative messages. Best summary of the current evidence is by Spencer, Logel & Davis (2016)

Maybe - Strategies related to confirming the skills can be learnt are effective in ignoring negative messages. Kray, Locke and Haselhuhn, 2010) demonstrated this with negotiation skills. It comes down to type of development and the approach taken to it. Women need to change their mindset after they have had the right type of development. Skill and task focused learning works best.

lean in part 3 - women need to overcome their fears

Yes - Women need to try on different leadership roles to both overcome their fears and develop self-efficacy (Hoyt and Murphy, 2016). This identity work in transitioning to leadership works for both men and women. Obtaining data and feedback on strengths, values and passions can make a difference (Chrobot-Mason, Ruderman and Nishii, 2014). Looking for patterns in life events can also be useful (Ruderman and Ohlott, 2002).

Yes - Exposure to female role models contributes to higher self-efficacy (Hoyt, 2012)

lean in part 4 - women should seek support from others to achieve success

Maybe - Mentoring helps women advance more than men, but support for work-family balance reduces women’s advancement more than men (Tharenou, 2005).

Maybe - Mentoring is valuable when exposed to less elite female role models - if too elite, it can be self-defeating on aspirations and self-perceptions (Hoyt and Simon, 2011)

lean in part 5 - Be authentic - true to values, preferences and personality

Nope - Female leaders are expected to keep their behaviours within a narrow range of what is considered acceptable leadership behaviours. Stepping outside this and women are more likely to be perceived as lower performers in leadership roles (Eagly & Carlie, 2003).

Maybe - As unpopular as it might be, there is a long established relationship between male leaders being assertive and female leaders being warm and selfless - it even has a fancy name the Think-Leader-Think-Male Phenomena (Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001). Researchers looked at whether highly assertive female leaders were able to overcome this- they found being perceived as less feminine had negative outcomes. There is research to show that women can increase their influence by increasing warmth or co-operativeness (Carli, 2001). The bottom line, be careful about how it’s done and be critical of these research findings - not tested in professional services firms or for professionals working inside corporates.

What does this mean for women leadership programs?

  1. Hate me if you will, but the focus on Inclusive Leadership is a distraction from where the evidence points to. Individual self-efficacy is a reoccurring theme in the research above and I think it should be developed first and best. We have over fifty years of research on how to develop self-efficacy in all types of settings for all types of people. Organisational climate is important for self-esteem and that links to the realities of being authentic and performing - focus on the organisational climate to increase self-efficacy. Cleverly designed mentoring, sponsorship to try different leadership roles and overcome fears in combination with good old fashioned job design and access to interesting work are the other building blocks to self-efficacy. Then a person can be any type of leader - including inclusive if you don’t like any of the evidence based alternatives!

  2. Based on this evidence, calls for female professionals to step up may be encouraging them into dangerous territory. How much of the design and content in your women leadership program is really evidence based ? That means researched and published in peer-reviewed journal with an editorial team that stops unsubstantiated recommendations. If you don’t, your programs could be doing more harm than good, or at best no harm and no good. Did you know one of the most popular models of inclusive leadership is based on just 15 interviews? That means there are more participants in each inclusive leadership program than there is evidence that it works for diversity. It gets even more scary when you consider the unique characteristics of professionals - what makes a successful Partner, Principal or In House Counsel achieving results in a world of ambiguity and influence is not the same a the hierarchical Australian Army. The first evidence based studies are being published and the results are mixed at best (see Jin, Lee and Lee 2017 for a study of inclusive leadership in the US public sector).

  3. Focus on identity work. Leverage the significant research on transition from professional to leader or more accurately new combination of professional and leadership. Put effective leadership development first and the unique challenges of professional women second - especially given their are no confirmed gender differences for achievement motivation - the core of professionals providing excellent advice to clients both internal and external. Excellent development options are available for identity, personal strategy and how to use strengths for leadership effectiveness - these approaches are used by the world leading women leadership programs - and there isn’t anything stopping firms and teams from using this research too!

  4. Professional women navigating pregnancy in the workplace takes us back to the fundamentals of discrimination and an interesting opportunity to make a difference. Combining an understanding of professional image with a strong sample that included 51% professionals from law, accounting and engineering, the 2015 study of professional image and pregnancy has identified challenges and implications for the careers of women taking parental leave, the partners and managers who supervisor their work and their engagement with the firm or team as they increase their productivity to the point of potential burn out. Wouldn’t this make for a much more practical and evidence based focus in retaining today’s lawyers and tomorrow’s future Partners than more unconscious bias training? I think we have done enough of that, and it’s not making much of a difference in the numbers. Hold on a second, the first analysis showing unconscious bias training was having no positive impact was published in 2016 examining studies from over forty years of diversity training. My current favourite is from Mike Noon at Queen Mary University in London - he is looking at unconscious bias and racism training and doesn’t pull his punches. Let’s discuss the work intensity approach professionals put on themselves before leave. Let’s call out the interesting work that subtly goes to others when a person announces they are taking parental leave and let’s solve the challenge of getting their clients back when they return. Now we are really tackling the challenge of gender equity using the best of the evidence available to us.

These are the types of evidence based gender workshops I’ve recently developed for professionals. Make contact if you would like to chat about any of the research or how I’m using it to help firms attract, retain and promote women to achieve gender balance in legal partnerships. It probably won’t surprise you after reading this, I don’t provide unconscious bias training.

One danger is that UBT (unconscious bias training) is adopted as a quick fix rather than the start of ... reflection, discussion and awareness-raising in keeping with cooperative learning approaches....it has the traits of a fad...” (Noon, 2018, 206).

Further reading

Chrobot-Mason, D.J. Hoobler and J. Burno (2018) Lean In Versus the Literature: An Evidence -Based Examination Academy of Management Perspectives Published online 15 October, 2018 https://doi.org/10.5465/amp.2016.0156