The Lean-In Industry

Attempts to get -- and keep -- more women in tech put the onus solely on women themselves… at tremendous time and cost.

by Heather O’Neill on April 27th, 2016

It’s widely acknowledged that the tech industry has a problem with women. There are fewer women entering tech, and up the tiers of company leadership, the participation and inclusion of women drops into single-digit percentages. Many women are leaving mid-career and not coming back. With few exceptions, it’s generally agreed that this is a bad thing, a problem to be solved. But despite all this agreement, the majority of attempts to get — and keep — more women in tech put the onus solely on women themselves… and at tremendous time and cost.

In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg published her now-infamous work, Lean In, encouraging women to literally “lean in” to their jobs, by asserting themselves, sitting at the table, attracting mentors, and, of course, starting a Lean In Circle. All this suggests that women just aren’t trying hard enough and that men would be happy to give women more, if only they would ask. As bell hooks writes, “It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality.” But people bought in, literally and figuratively: Sheryl’s book became a bestseller and kicked off a new “revolution” of trying to increase women’s presence in tech… by “improving” women.

Rows and rows of empty chairs.

Photo CC-BY -Vik-.

Lean In Circles, an explosion of women’s conferences & events, women’s groups & organizations, and even women-oriented workshops, such as this one on negotiating pay raises, all purport to help women join and stay in tech. One such workshop even offers to help women navigate toxic company culture. Touted as the “Professional Woman’s Guide to Navigating Sexist Bullshit”, it’s described as a practical application for leaning in. But at a $425 price point and located only in San Francisco, it’s clear that this workshop isn’t for all women.

Nor are many of the others; they all require time and money that women often just don’t have. Lean In circles meet monthly and call for “commitment” as one of their core tenets, excluding women who don’t have consistent schedules. Conferences & events, though occasionally free, can cost up to $10,000, and sometimes even demand women complete a lengthy application process. Even the renowned Grace Hopper Conference, put on by the Anita Borg Institute, costs almost $1,000 unless you study ($350) or work ($550) in academia. None of those price points is particularly affordable, and don’t even include travel and lodging expenses. Many women’s groups and orgs have a membership fee to join, costing up to $250 per year. And no matter what women choose, almost all require travel time, even if the event is local.

These costs are incurred even though women in tech already make less than men — in fact, new research shows that computer programming has the biggest gender pay gap in America (and that doesn’t break out data specifically on women of color, who we know are paid far less than white women across all industries.) Additionally, women often take on the brunt of household and caregiving work at home, from cleaning & cooking to family care, leaving them less time, energy and money for these “extracurriculars.” If women spend their sparse “free” time on monthly Lean In circles, women’s conferences, and women’s workshops, they have less time and money to spend on learning new skills, working on side projects, and their life outside of work in general.

This is on top of the fact that women in tech ALREADY have to work harder than their male counterparts to get even half as much recognition. They are also still expected to do a majority of emotional and unpaid labor in their companies – from small things, like being asked to make the coffee or getting talked over in a meeting, to more egregious ones, like letting others steal their ideas without getting “offended” or being expected to project a “unthreatening” persona and manage team emotions, all with no acknowledgement and no credit.

All this takes a huge toll on women. From burnout to depression and feelings of failure, the negative consequences of the Lean In movement, though unintended, are not good. Women who get skipped over for promotion, unjustly let go, or given extra work without extra pay are left wondering where they missed the mark, where they could have leaned in harder, pushing themselves to just “do better” so they can “have it all”. But they never get it all by leaning in. Instead, leaning in to a work atmosphere that subtly excludes them only adds to a sense of isolation that most women experience over time, causing them to leave.

A woman, looking alone and isolated, with her back to the camera, staring down at her phone in the shadows.

Photo CC-BY Stefan Kamer. 

Beyond the tax of time, energy and money, the “Lean In” industry perpetuates the idea that women need to change to succeed. And that’s shit, especially because the techniques advocated often tend to backfire more than they help, leaving coworkers, bosses, and direct reports to dismiss assertive women as “bossy”, “bitchy” and “hard to work with”. Many even find ways to demote, discredit, or fire them. This is especially true for women of color, as the model of leaning in tends to work only for white middle-class women, when it works at all. As Ruchika Tulshyan wrote on the recent Equal Pay day:

“Every year, I’m uncomfortable with the rhetoric surrounding this day, which focuses on what women need to do in order to level up their pay to the white man’s dollar… What this dialogue ignores is that women face various implicit biases when we #askformore (another catchy hashtag to mark this day). We’re seen as less likable, lacking team spirit, and pushy/bitchy when we negotiate our salaries or raise our voices in general. When I reported a story previously on what happens when women of color speak up, I learned that the ramifications are even worse for them. Black women told me they faced the harmful impacts of being considered difficult to work with, with male supervisors giving them the damaging label of ‘angry black woman.’ Asian-American women told me they weren’t expected to speak up at all. A Latina director at a Fortune 100 company said a manager was more interested in why she didn’t have a ‘funny accent’ than in her leadership capabilities.”

Not only that, but efforts to make women change simply aren’t solving tech’s gender problem: instead, it’s getting worse. Women still make up only 25% of tech roles, with women of color particularly underrepresented: the computing workforce is just 3% Black women, 5% Asian women, and 1% Latina women. All lean in means is that women are expected to do even more to “prove” they belong in tech: dedicate more time, change who they are and how they communicate, spend more money. All these efforts, situations, and investments stem (pun intended) from one obvious, but oft unstated supposition: tech culture can’t (or shouldn’t) be changed and women need to adjust themselves to fit within the system.

“‘We see these stories, ‘Why aren’t there more women in computer science and engineering?’ and there’s all these complicated answers like, ‘School advisers don’t have them take math and physics,’ and it’s probably true,’ said Lauren Weinstein, a man who has spent his four-decade career in tech working mostly with other men, and is currently a consultant for Google.

‘But I think there’s probably a simpler reason,’ he said, ‘which is these guys are just jerks, and women know it.'”

— Technology’s Man Problem, by Claire Cain Miller

Women know it, and honestly, many men know it too. It’s only the tech industry’s stubborn insistence on its own meritocracy that leaves women with the “try harder and you’ll succeed” message that Lean In offers. And that can no longer stand. It’s time for men — especially the privileged white men at the top of tech — to admit their role in creating the problem and take actions to fix it. Here are a few starting points:

  1. Lean out of harmful workplace behaviors: Lean In asks women to change their workplace behaviors, but we don’t focus on what MEN can do to change theirs. Share credit, take on thankless tasks, talk less in meetings, stop demanding emotional labor from women, and do more support work for your women co-workers.
  2. Attend men-oriented workshops (or create them!): Focus on topics such as: reducing unconscious bias and systematic misogyny and racism in tech companies; understanding the needs of women who join your org; and learning to be inclusive of different viewpoints & perspectives.
  3. Pay women: Equally and always. If you ask a woman to do work for you of any kind, pay her, especially for anything that might be considered “volunteer” or “diversity work”, like speaking, improving diversity or mentoring other women.
  4. Promote women: Assume any woman in your org is working hard and is qualified for the next job up (because she probably is) and give her a promotion. Heck, give her one based on her potential.
  5. Cover costs & time off for events: If women want to attend an event, pay for it and comp her any time that she spends outside normal work hours.

Three women of color sitting on couches in an office environment, talking and working on their laptops.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

See, the problem with women in tech… isn’t women.

The problem is a tech culture where women have to prove themselves and are told unequal treatment is their fault… and even when they DO lean in, they are derided and dismissed for it. The problem is a tech culture where if women are critical about something (even something as innocuous as critiques of video games), they receive rape and death threats. It’s a culture that says women aren’t welcome, so much so that women self-select out of it because of sexism, even when they love the work. Women aren’t creating this culture, or benefitting from it… so why do we keep putting the onus back on them to fix it?

If we really want to change tech, we need to stop trying to “improve” women, on their time and expense. It’s time for the Lean In industry to end, and for culture change to begin… starting with men.