Photo by Matthew Henry

Lean In was celebrated by many as the “silver-bullet” to the pressing issue of inequality in the workplace. At the same time, the book was also heavily criticized by scholars for its simplification of gender issues and inability to generate meaningful change.

Until now, those on both sides of the Lean In argument have simply agreed to disagree. However, a new study published in the Harvard Business Review gives scientific weight to the idea that changing women’s behavior does little to remedy gender discrimination.

Changing one’s behavior to please employers and foster success is a cultural norm that goes far beyond Lean In and discussions of gender equality. I argue that authenticity – a concept that is often held separate from our professional lives – is key to breaking down systemic inequality.

When our authentic selves, independent yet intertwined with our political identities, are recognized as valued, we can begin to move away from toxic myths of womanhood, success, and intelligence that limit our own potential, and prevent patriarchal systems from being dismantled, to evolve toward authenticity instead of bias.

The Study
Measuring the societal impact of women changing their behavior to better suit workplace “ideals” can be both difficult and problematic. The HBR study shows progress in this area through creative data collection methods.

Scientists performed an experiment in which women and men at a company were tracked by digital communication and sensor technology throughout their workday to measure “who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.”

Before conducting the experiment, researchers hypothesized that women didn’t have the same access (whether self-imposed or not) to mentors, managers or senior leadership. But, the data proved otherwise.

After this data was collected, anonymized and analyzed, the research team was surprised to find “…almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Women had the same number of contacts as men, they spent as much time with senior leadership, and they allocated their time similarly to men in the same role.”

And concluded that, “arguments about changing women’s behavior — to ‘lean-in,’ for example — might miss the bigger picture: Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

The Modern Working Woman
When popular texts discuss women’s inclusion in the workplace, they typically refer to a very specific type of woman. The Modern Working Woman is middle to upper class and understands the practices required to succeed in the ‘boy’s club.’ Being too feminine is perceived as weakness and self-expression is bad for business. She remains the standard upon which women are judged by their peers – male and female – thanks much in part to a homogenous cultural definition of a successful woman.

The Modern Working Woman is an ideal, a myth.

Anyone interested in understanding how we create cultural myths in our society should most certainly read Roland Barthes. In his book Mythologies, Barthes writes, “myth is a system of communication…[a myth] is a message.” He continues, “myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things.”

As this particular myth was developed and maintained to perpetuate patriarchal culture, messages that at first seem “empowering” are ultimately stripped of progressive potential.

As the above study demonstrates, the idea that women need to work harder or find other access points to power only perpetuates masculine dominance, making it harder for women to advance. Lean In may help women understand how to navigate patriarchal structures – but not how to dismantle them.

Embracing Authenticity
If leaning in isn’t the solution – then what is?

To discuss true inclusion and equality in the workplace, we have to think bigger than leaning in or making the hiring processes more female-friendly. We need to understand that authenticity in the corporate setting – especially when that authenticity is expressive of female-ness, black-ness, trans-ness, or other-ness – is discouraged.

In a 2015 article titled “Authentic Workplaces Don’t Try to Make Everyone the Same,” authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones write: “Does your workplace reflect a relative balance of males and females in leadership positions? A healthy range of diversity regarding age, skin color, religious conviction, culture, or/and sexual orientation? Yes? Before you congratulate yourself on how diverse your workplace is, what if we told you it might not be diverse enough — or at least not in the ways that matter most?”

Goffee and Jones go on to discuss how

true diversity means that people within the workplace are allowed “to be themselves: to have a voice, exercise discretion, express disagreement, show what they really care about, feel ‘natural’ or self-fulfilled on the job.”

To solve the ‘diversity’ problem in tech and all workplaces – we need to be more authentic, not just in our means of self-expression, but also how we discuss root causes of obstacles. Instead of asking women to lean in, we should ask company leaders to allow authentic expression and opinions, as well as be more open to what constitutes “productive” behavior however that manifests in an individual.

Most importantly, we need to encourage and allow authenticity at work not just as a business “best practice,” but as a must-have for societal progress and human happiness.

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