Beyond lean in women shouldn’t have to fix the workplace

Back in 2019, I joined a packed stadium of enthusiastic fans to hear Michelle Obama speak. She covered a range of topics, from motherhood to leadership. But I was especially struck by Obama’s take on impostor syndrome—that nagging whisper in your head telling you that you’re not good enough—which she called shushing.

As parents, we shush our children, who, as adults, shush themselves. Once internalized, shushing becomes a barrier, a means of holding ourselves back, and undercuts our own confidence. Obama put words to what I already felt: That impostor syndrome is shushing so deep that even when we earn our seat at the table, we question if we’re supposed to be there.

In that moment, I chose to use my impostor syndrome as a strength instead of fighting it. I started using shushing as a barometer of my own fear. Now, when I feel the urge to shush myself, I know I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and I’ve found an opportunity to push harder.

 The media, however, had a much different takeaway. They saw it as Obama throwing shade at Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book Lean In encapsulated in one statement. “That whole, ‘So you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time,” Obama told the crowd. “[I]t’s not always enough to lean in, because that s**t doesn’t work all the time.”

Pitting Obama against Sandberg probably made for good clickbait, but I worry it diminishes the extent to which Lean In brought workplace gender inequality into mainstream awareness. Lean In has its flaws, but it remains a resonant and relevant contribution to acknowledging and addressing a complex issue. Far from a one-size-fits-all solution, Lean In is one voice in an ongoing conversation, a conversation that Obama has fueled in countless ways, and one we all have a stake in continuing.

Instead of throwing it out, how can we solidify and build on the bedrock that Lean In provided?

Sandberg was certainly on point regarding the various ways women hold themselves back. We are expert shushers, accustomed to being talked-over at meetings, having our ideas repackaged by male voices, and giving undue credence to our presumed inadequacies over our obvious strengths. While perhaps minor in and of themselves, these concessions become self-inflicted wounds that Lean In sought to mitigate.

That said, the onus can’t be entirely on women to “fix” themselves, to amend and adjust their attitudes and behaviors to thrive in entrepreneurial ecosystems. We must simultaneously confront the various ways that existing policies and procedures are systemically biased. You can lean in all you want, but many imbalances are already baked in.

To be clear, this isn’t some corrupt patriarchal conspiracy. Bias is insidious partly because it’s so often invisible. And while identifying those biases is one thing, fixing them is another pickle altogether. Many corporate actors talk an enlightened talk, while inequality festers under the surface.

There are a wealth of organizations, including my own, that are making concerted, conscientious strides to support and empower an increasingly diverse workforce. We can see the progress being made. Equality isn’t an abstract concept, but a tangible and visible phenomenon. Canadian tech company Unbounce has done fantastic work in not only doing the complex work to root out and expose their own gender pay gap but provide their peers with a roadmap to do the same.

Instead of telling people playing fields are level, the companies that impress me most seek to show it in various ways. They ensure an equal number of women are in positions of leadership, serve on boards, and are represented at meetings. Diversity not only makes for a stronger, more creative, and higher-performing workforce but assures that a company better reflects a similarly diverse customer base and community. This helps, in turn, to serve them better. 

There is, of course, much more work to be done to advance diversity and inclusion as both principles and practices. This need not be a daunting prospect. Even seemingly minor adjustments such as gender-blind assignment reviews, scrubbing gendered language from job postings, involving female leaders in hiring processes, can ultimately make a big difference in the aggregate.

Yet some of the most profound policy pivots arise by reflecting on longstanding presumptions. Take parental leave, for example. Does the “burden” of parental leave necessarily fall on mothers? Are your hiring practices biased against women with young children? Are exceptional candidates being overlooked or rejected because they are, or want to be, pregnant? Do you wonder whether women can go “all in” if they’re perpetually putting their families first?

Challenging just this one assumption that women are necessarily the primary caregivers, companies can look to implement more flexible work policies that work for all parents, and recruit top-tier candidates that might have otherwise been overlooked.

Identifying innately negative perceptions of pregnancy and family building lifted the scales from my own eyes. I recently hired a new senior team member. She’s a perfect fit, and I needed her here yesterday. But, she’d just added a new baby to her family. Rather than shrug and move on down the list, we talked through our priorities and negotiated a timeline where she could work part-time from home for several months, and ultimately strike an amenable work/life balance. At the end of the day, outstanding candidates are hard to come by, and the pros of patience vastly outnumber the cons. 

Family gender norms are undergoing rapid change. American children are being raised in households with both parents working, 34 million American households are headed by women, and 6 million mothers are the sole breadwinners for families with kids under the age of 18.

With the impacts of COVID-19, the disparity becomes even more pronounced as job losses have hit women, parents, and people of color especially hard. It’s going to take an even more concerted effort to not let the pandemic set equality in the workplace back by 10 years. Is it any wonder that major international organizations like Bank of America, Deloitte, L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Unilever are being lauded for their efforts surrounding inclusion, flexible working hours, parental leave, and child care practices—in other words, mechanisms that largely support working mothers as they advance their careers?

We all have a stake in making progress a reality, but advancing these values takes more than leaning in. I’m talking about a rigorous, collective campaign that requires insight, effort, honesty, and courage. Women will still work hard and hustle, but we must shift the urge to shush within us into an impetus to push. And it can’t fall to women alone, leaning in, to make change.

For everyone who knows we can do better, who wants to contribute ideas and solutions, who’s in it for the long haul, and who’s willing to step outside their comfort zone, my parting advice is this: Lean in, on your terms. Use your voice for yourself, for those around you, and for those who will follow. Above all: Listen for those moments when you shush yourself. Use them as a reminder that if you believe you can, you can.

Miranda Lievers is the cofounder and COO of Thinkific.

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