It’s Not Women Who Should Lean In; It’s Men Who Should Step Back

Men should read Lean Inso said friend and fellow HBR writer Nilofer Merchant. Three compelling reasons later, I had myself a copy of the book. While it might have been written as a treatise of what women could be doing to more of to gain more leadership positions in our organizations, and how we would all benefit from that happening, there was something else that stood out for me: it read as a pretty comprehensive list of things that the men have been doing wrong.

More concerning still — it spent a lot of time encouraging women to copy us.

There are two broad areas where the book offers advice. The first is how to get ahead in the workplace. Here, Lean In almost always prefaces its advice by first identifying areas where, relative to their male counterparts, women are (for want of a better term) "under-performing." They aren't as confident. They aren't as ambitious. Men are more comfortable taking credit for their achievements, and there's less cost to them individually when they do so. And so on. The assertions are often backed up with a big body of research.

The problem comes not in identifying that there are differences between the sexes. The problem is that too often, the book simply asserts or assumes that in there being this difference, women have been doing something wrong.

Let me give you an example: the relative difference in confidence between the sexes. In exploring this phenomenon, the book cites a research study of students in a surgery rotation; the study found that when asked to evaluate themselves, the female students gave themselves lower scores than the male students, despite faculty evaluations that later showed the women actually outperformed the men. Passed through the lens of Lean In's judgment, the ones at fault here are the women, for not being confident enough in themselves. The recommendation that comes later in the chapter: women should "fake it until they make it."

But is this really good advice?

While Lean In might see the scenario as women lacking the confidence of men, there is a pretty glaring alternative hypothesis: it wasn't the women who were lacking confidence — but it was the men who were too confident. It's not that much of a stretch to suggest that the men who were more confident in their ability were the ones less likely to do the hard yards in preparation before the surgery rotation. The end result? They didn't perform as well.

And that's the problem that runs throughout the book. Despite spending so much time citing research about the benefits of having women in leadership positions, a lot of its recommendations focus on, to put it bluntly, making women more like men, without proper consideration of whether that would actually be a good thing. As I read, I wondered: why is it the women who should be copying the men? Why can't it be the men who could be well served by taking a page out of an entirely different book: that of the very women Lean In is advising to change? What it is about women that men could emulate to make our workplaces, our families, and our society in general a better place?

And it's not just behaviors in the workplace that Lean In takes this approach — it's in career management, too. "Women are not less ambitious than men, they insist, but more enlightened with different and more meaningful goals. I do not dismiss or dispute this argument," writes Sandberg. "There is far more to life than climbing a career ladder, including raising children, seeking personal fulfillment, contributing to society, and improving the lives of others." And yet, having delivered that paragraph, the book then marches straight past it as if it never happened. In doing so, it takes one of the most important conversations we can have — that about building a career in the context of a life — and, for better or for worse, tips it upside down into a discussion about building a life in the context of a career.

You don't have to look very far to find evidence that thinking about life like this can come with serious costs. Clay Christensen, in the HBR article that was the prelude to the book that he, Karen Dillon and I worked on, talked about making it back to his HBS school reunions only to witness an ever-increasing number of his classmates unhappy from thinking about their careers in this way. And it's far from just high-flying MBAs and executives that suffer from this problem: Bonnie Ware, who for many years worked in palliative care, articulately speaks to the same issue. She asked her patients about their regrets as they neared the end of their lives. Five themes emerged; I encourage you to go and read them. I want to quote just one: "'I wish I didn't work so hard.' This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

The advice that Sandberg dispenses comes with serious costs. Those costs have traditionally been borne by men. But the book never considers that, rather than women not leaning in enough, that it actually might be men who have been leaning in too much. "Women rarely make one big decision to leave the workforce. Instead, they make a lot of small decisions along the way, making accommodations and sacrifices that they believe will be required to have a family." "When asked to choose between marriage and career, female college students are twice as likely to choose marriage as their male classmates." The book takes the research, applies its judgment to it, and implores women to change their point of view — because the men have it right. I'm not so sure, and nothing in Lean In convinced me otherwise.

Early on in the book, Sandberg quotes Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation and one of the first woman to serve as president of an Ivy League university: "My generation fought so hard to give all of you choices. We believe in choices. But choosing to leave the workforce was not the choice we thought so many of you would make." "So what happened?" asks Sandberg, before listing a number of reasons why it's still incredibly tough for women to make it to the top. I don't dispute any of them. But I want to posit that there's another reason why so many women have chosen alternative paths, and it's not because it's difficult: it's because that in terms of what generates sustained long term happiness in our lives, careers are a long way from the be all and end all, and women have simply done a better job of recognizing it.

If men have taken the C-suite hostage, then Lean In presents with underlying symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. 50/50 is a worthy goal — both getting women in leadership, and getting men at home — but it's not just important that it happens, but how it happens, too. That's what I wish Sandberg had pushed for: not for more leaning in, but more pushing back from the current model.

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