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The Problem With Leaning In

Leaning in is the concept that employees, particularly women, are their own worst enemy by creating barriers themselves that internalize discrimination and bias in the workplace which hinder their development and advancement.

While there may be some truth to the notion that “we have met the enemy and the enemy is us,” this notion of leaning in oversimplifies that complicated issue of equal opportunity at work.

Leaning in puts too much emphasis on individual advocacy that reinforces the notion it is all about me. It will be difficult to build solidarity with other victims of bias in the workplace with a process that rewards selfish ambition over concern for everyone. If one boat rises, all boats should rise.

Leaning in fails to address the overlapping concerns of racism, privilege, oppression and domination that have created structural and systematic hurdles for the achievement of a workplace that works for everyone. It encourages covering by essentially saying to the subordinate group “emulate the power brokers in the dominant group” if you want to ensure your progress and development. Instead of reforming the root cause of the problem, this kind of “fake it till you make it” strategy works around the problem and postpones its potential resolution to the next victim. The prevailing message is you can be successful in an unjust system without changing the inherent unfairness of the system.

Leaning in leans on a fragile approach that individual equality in the workplace will magically translate into equality for all. Much like the uneven results of trickle down economics, trickle down equality is destined to a similar fate.

Reverse Covering
Leaning in forces employees particularly women to act like men in the workplace. Some resort to masculine habits like cursing, being aggressive and acting like one of the boys. Only to receive comments from their male colleagues like: (1) She needs to go to charm school and (2) She needs to act more feminine.

For people who lean in, it is “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” You pay a price for being yourself and you pay a deeper cost for acting like someone else.

Leaning in avoids the dirty work of examining the reality that all of us are not in equal power positions in the workplace to make leaning in worthwhile. Is a GS-5 employee working in a call center able to lean in just as strongly as her Mercedes Benz driving Senior Executive? Can people of color lean in just as much as White people? Can a single inner city mom lean in like a suburban housewife who can afford a nanny?

Instead of talking about leaning in at work, we should be emphasizing leaning out — getting outside the narrow confines of our own self-interests and seeing the workplace as a communal setting that works for everyone and not just a chosen few. Let’s lean on each other for a change.

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Great article. Makes much more sense than just trying to rig the system. I’ve seen too many women who did “make it” by becoming one of the guys, but then keep other women down.