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Forget leaning in or out: These are the questions we should be asking women (and men)

A GM at Techstars says, “Rather than asking women (and now men) to lean in or lean out, why not ask them what they would do if they could set the goals and make the rules?”

Forget leaning in or out: These are the questions we should be asking women (and men)
[Photo: frimages/iStock]

In the last decade, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of capital going to female founders, a slight increase in the number of Fortune 500 companies led by women, and more women than ever holding corporate director positions. But at the current rate of change, we won’t see gender parity in the workforce for 150 years. Yes, there is progress, but the end results are abysmally low.

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We are at a crossroads in what the world of work looks like, who can participate, and on what terms.

The onset of the global pandemic has dramatically changed assumptions of what is possible. In less than a month, with “shelter in place” orders in effect throughout the United States, corporate America has quickly been forced to adopt remote work—and the future of the workplace is rapidly changing. The 20th-century vision of the office day has been replaced by a flexible, adaptable model that might facilitate entrepreneurial thinking.

This new flexibility could create more opportunities for leadership positions for women.

Consider that while 36.6% of college graduates in the U.S. are women, only 2.7% of venture funding went to women last year, less than 6% of the Fortune 500 have female CEOs, and only 20% of board seats are held by women globally. The story of the struggle for equality in the workforce has been long, and while it is still ongoing, it is worth taking time out to pause and consider where we are in the narrative. What strategies are available to women as we embark on this new chapter in a new decade?

Part of what has enabled as much progress as we’ve seen for women and other groups is a mindset dedicated to righting wrongs, seeking them out, and withstanding the backlash of entrenched interests unwilling or, perhaps, unable to make space for those who only recently had been minor characters in our shared understanding of the world of work.

But running in parallel to the steps forward, a false dichotomy has emerged, making the conversation around women and work more difficult. In the past 10 years, as an unprecedented number of women have received degrees in higher education, and stepped into the workforce prepared to rise in the ranks, a conversation on opting into or opting out of the workforce has emerged.

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By pushing a narrative into the mainstream media on “leaning in” versus “leaning out,” women are inadvertently being led to argue about which side they are on as if those are actually the choices. The decision tree looks like doubling down on your career or making it secondary to family.

I don’t think that’s what Sheryl Sandberg meant to say when she wrote Lean In, and I don’t think that was an argument Michelle Obama was trying to have when she said leaning in didn’t work all the time. Rather, I think Sandberg was making a call for women to lean in to their leadership abilities and Obama was articulating that paths are not always linear. But the conversation held in the media made it seem like they were completely at odds with each other. There was no room for an actual conversation, just a sound-byte-driven debate.

A New York Times op-ed advocating for men to lean out added to the discussion last year saying that the “assertiveness movement” was asking women to be more like men. Instead, the writer asks for men to take on some of the attributes more often associated with women, such as deference. I get the point, but this line of discussion fuels the false set of choices and doubles down on the very idea that men and women are inherently different.

We’re creating a set of conversations that assume all the rules are set, unchangeable, and that all women have access to the same options. Women serving as military spouses, for example, have little option to lean in to careers when they are on the move, and they face an even harsher motherhood penalty when trying to reenter. These debates assume that leadership positions are set in place like chairs at a table: Climb the ladder or don’t—the choice is yours. And given that logic, it follows that the outcome is predictable. At any given rung, you’ll find a chair that comes with a certain amount of compensation and privilege. Step off the ladder, and you’ll be joining the game one step down.

Positions in the world of work are much more dynamic than this. Corporations are nothing more than a collection of people working on shared goals. Those in leadership positions don’t just have a seat at the table; they get to decide the corporate objectives. Rather than asking women (and now men) to lean in or lean out, why not ask them what they would do if they could set the goals and make the rules? Would they be in favor of leveraging the technology that exists today to rethink the standard workday? Could that lead to a more productive, innovative organization, which in turn produced better results?

Perhaps the public health emergency caused by COVID-19, which drove millions to work from home without standard child care, and millions more to file for unemployment, ignited a spark of curiosity about why the workday was designed the way it was in the first place.

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Asking people what they would do if they were in charge is not only a better question than whether you should lean in or lean out; it’s a better question for corporations.

The latest research from Innosight predicts that by 2027, two-thirds of all companies in the S&P 500 will be displaced due to digital transformation and disruptive innovations. Companies that survive will be those that are able to develop new strategies in line with the rapid pace of change in consumers and markets. In short, those that survive will be those that were able to innovate quickly and repeatedly.

Research shows companies that are best positioned to be innovative have diversity in viewpoints and backgrounds among their leaders. So when we see the dismal stats on women in leadership such as those listed above, we need not just to look at why that would be good to address for women. We should be looking at why that would be good for companies to address, which in turn benefits our actual economy.

In 2020, with the world of work changing in real time before our eyes, let’s stop asking people to lean in or lean out. Instead, let’s ask women and men to rethink what power is in a corporation, and how leaders can drive better outcomes, more innovations, and fundamentally change the way we deliver value in the process. Rather than talking about career development and progression as steps to get to a defined seat, let’s talk about career progression as a journey to transformation and innovation. Unlike problems that get tackled by legislators and can take decades to bear fruit, why not encourage women to step into leadership positions to drive change?

As we head into this new decade, with more disruption on the horizon, let’s not just look to get more women to the table. Let’s rethink what we’re all doing there.


Claudia Reuter was featured on the Lean-In website in 2013 when she was building her own company. She is currently a GM with Techstars, the creator and host of the podcast The 43 Percent, and the author of the book Yes, You Can Do This. How Women Start Up, Scale Up, and Build the Life They Want.

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