Research into the impact of “Lean In” messages

Research finds “Lean In” messages can lower women’s motivation to protest gender inequality

Researchers at Bath Spa University, University of Exeter and Australian National University have published their findings on the impact of “Lean In” messages on women’s motivation to protest gender inequality.

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Bath Spa University, Dr Renata Bongiorno, is lead author on the paper and conducted the research while at the University of Exeter.

“Lean in” solutions to gender inequality

Sherly Sandberg’s popular “Lean in” solution to gender inequality advises women that personal resilience and perseverance in the face of setbacks is key to career advancement. While such messages provide inspiration for some, they can also reduce women’s likelihood to protest gender discrimination – where the real hope for gender equality progress lies. 

Studying the impact on women’s motivation to protest discrimination

As part of the study, which involved four experiments, researchers examined women’s motivation to protest gender inequality after exposure to “Lean in” messages that promote individual resilience.

In one experiment, women participated in activities to build their own resilience by learning how to set flexible goals and maintain confidence. All the experiments were in the UK and involved over 1000 participants.

The research found:

  • In three of four experiments, women in “Lean in” conditions were less willing to be part of protest action over gender inequality compared to those in a control condition who were not exposed to “Lean in” messages.
  • In two of the experiments, this effect occurred because women in “Lean In” conditions were less likely to believe that gender discrimination would affect their career prospects.
  • In one, this effect occurred because women in “Lean in” conditions also felt less angry about ongoing gender inequality.  

Highlighting a dark side to “Lean in” messages

The findings of this research highlight a dark side to “Lean in” messages and related individual resilience training for women that is offered as a remedy for gender inequality in the workplace. The study found that this can undermine women’s recognition of, and willingness to protest about, the root causes of gender inequality: discrimination. 

Dr Renata Bongiorno said:

“The popularity of the ‘Lean in’ movement speaks to the challenges women continue to face due to gender discrimination in the workplace. 

“Women are understandably looking for ways to advance their careers despite the disproportionate setbacks they continue to experience compared to men. 

“While the ‘Lean in’ solution offered by Sheryl Sandberg can feel empowering, a lack of individual resilience or perseverance is not the cause of women’s poorer career progress. 

“The messages lead to women assuming that gender discrimination will be less of a barrier to their career advancement. This false belief is concerning for progress because it is reducing women’s willingness to protest the real causes of gender inequality.

“Progress and gains for women have historically been achieved through collective protest over gender discriminatory practices and policies, including pregnancy discrimination, a lack of affordable childcare, and workplace sexual harassment.

“Finding ways to effectively challenge these ongoing barriers should be a focus for feminism because they are the real causes of gender inequality in career outcomes.” 

This research was funded by the European Research Council.

Find out more about this research in Neoliberal Feminism and Women’s Protest Motivation, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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