Come on, you can do it, lean in! It’s common sense that motivating people to overcome obstacles can make them stronger and that “empowering people” is one of management schools’ favorite approaches. Since the publication of the famous book by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s nr 2, “Lean in”, encouraging women to make a step forward has become one of the key messages to overcome discriminations at work. In the book and in the dedicated 2010 TED talk (watched 8 million times and often used by companies in projects about diversity), Sandberg gives a recipe to encourage women to raise their hands, to raise their tone of voice, to trust themselves. The message at the bottom is: even if the world is not tailor-made for you, you can still overcome obstacles and succeed.

What’s wrong about this message?

Duke University’s researchers worked on this question, involving 2,000 people to check the difference between getting a “Lean in” message or receiving objective data about the conditions hindering women at work (pay-gap, work-life balance, glass ceiling and so on).

Results were surprising and…worrying. Participants exposed to empowerment messages developed the conviction that women can do it, but also that it is their responsibility to solve gender discriminations or even that they are the cause of these discriminations.

According to the Harvard Business Review, which published the results of the research, the approach “enabling” women generates an illusion of control which is not realistic: it is shown that women cannot, individually and directly, solve all the challenges of a discriminatory system, but it is the system that has to be changed.

What happens is extremely human:

“People don’t love injustice and when they can’t adjust it in a simple way, they make a mental exercise to make it more acceptable. Blaming victims for their sufferings is a typical example: that person must have done something to deserve what happened” the researchers commented.

On the other hand, it’s clear that there is something extremely provisional when you, as a woman, are asked to follow instructions like:

Be assertive, but lower your tone of voice

Ask for a pay raise, but do it with kindness

Be clever, but don’t feel superior

Show your skills, but don’t be intellectually intimidating

Be ambitious, without bothering with excesses of self-esteem

Dress nicely, without standing out!

As the journalist Quartz Ephrat Livni stated:

“We cannot and must not absorb facetious messaging that says we created and can fix failings that are not of our own making—and that we might somehow shape-shift until we fit perfectly into fundamentally flawed workplaces.”

Author: Riccarda Zezza, post written for Alley Oop