By Ephrat Livni

Quartz, August 21, 2018 —

Advocating a do-it-yourself approach to on-the-job equality may actually be a kind of gaslighting—just one more way for institutions to deflect blame and make women question themselves and doubt their sanity.

If you’re a working woman, you’ve likely been inundated with advice about how to ensure that gender double standards don’t impede your brilliant career. Assert yourself boldly at meetings in an appropriately low tone of voice, yet purr pleasingly when negotiating salary. Be smart but never superior, a team player though not a pushover, ever-effective yet not intimidatingly intellectual. Calibrate ambition correctly, so that none are offended by your sense of self-worth, but all seek to reward your value. Dress the part.

Inevitably, even in the most allegedly enlightened workplaces, women contend with subtle biases. And so the fairer sex gets the message that we can’t just work. We must also contort and twist and try not to seem bitchy as we lean in.

Ephrat Livni: What if the problem is bigger than you and whether you lean in or coo? (Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

But the obstacles that come with working in a sexist culture are beyond any individual’s control. And so advocating a do-it-yourself approach to on-the-job equality may actually be a kind of gaslighting—just one more way for institutions to deflect blame and make women question themselves and doubt their sanity. It’s the society we operate in that needs fixing, not how we ask for money, the tone of our voices, or our outfits.

In fact, research by Duke University department of neuroscience professors Grainne Fitzsimons, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that overemphasizing messages of individual female empowerment diminishes people’s sense of systemic obstacles that require societal redress. It puts major historic problems on the shoulders of individuals, who are actually minor players, they write in the Harvard Business Review (paywall).

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The problem with “Lean In”

Empowerment advice for women provides an “illusion of control” that’s not realistic, the researchers say. The advice may be good insofar as it gives us hope, but it fails to recognize larger, much more powerful forces at work, like a long history of discrimination and patriarchy.

“We suspected that by arguing that women can solve the problem themselves, advocates of the ‘DIY’ approach may imply that women should be the ones to solve it—that it is their responsibility to do so,” they write. “We also hypothesized that this message could risk leading people to another, potentially dangerous conclusion: that women have caused their own under-representation.”

To test their theories, the researchers conducted six studies on 2,000 male and female subjects in the US. Participants read text from Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, or listened to audio clips from her TED talks that describe the problem of women’s under-representation in leadership. Sandberg’s work was chosen for its prominence and because it advocates a DIY approach while also laying out the systemic problems that women face. This ensured that subjects got different messages from the same messenger—Sandberg.

Some participants read or heard the DIY messages telling women to be more ambitious, speak confidently, demand a seat at the table, and take risks. Others read or listened to information about structural and societal factors causing under-representation, like discrimination. It turned out that people who heard the DIY messages were more likely to believe women have the power to solve the problem and were also more likely to believe women are responsible for both causing and fixing gender issues. Meanwhile, subjects who heard about structural problems tended to see a need for institutions and society to address discrimination.

“What’s more, these effects were even associated with people’s policy preferences,” the scientists write. For example, people who encountered the DIY messages were more likely to blame women in a subsequent study showing that code written by female engineers at Facebook was rejected more often than code written by men.