Lean in and die trying. A lesson in how to obscure instead of solve a problem

By Ralf Wetzel, Professor of Organisation and Management at Vlerick Business School

Today’s chauvinists live in difficult times. Waving the flag of equality, women successfully conquered most domains of modern life decades ago, with no regard for the consequences for their poor male counterparts. That’s nothing new. They found ways to adapt, in the worst case by resorting to cynicism. However, encountering an average chauvinist these days means witnessing a state of sheer devastation. Famished, pale, hopeless, almost with tears in his eyes. What happened? Women have obviously overrun one of their last strongholds, one of their last resorts. So far, they always could retreat to one safe zone in their arguments, to one last point of polemic: ‘Dear ladies, overall, you’re just not smart enough.’ Well, that’s history. Even that polemic is now found on the lips of women, they have conquered the last bastion as well. From now on, chauvinists are truly somehow, … well: homeless.

The hypothesis of ‘Lean In’

‘Lean in’ has been one of the management bestsellers of the previous years. Sheryl Sandberg wants to offer a refreshing look into gender inequalities, especially in the world of business and management. And she aims to provide a clear and empowering guidance for women planning to step into higher management positions and crack the ‘glass ceiling’. The ambition to “help” women to liberate themselves from low self-perception and considerable self-restrictions is more than laudable, and she herself seems to give the proof that it works. As COO of Facebook, she has climbed to the top of the greasy pole with mind-blowing speed and success. She seems to be the role model for the quickest way to the top, given that no one else will fight for women’s rights and equality than themselves. Cut to the bones, the core message of the book claims: ‘It’s you, stupid!’ If women only were more active and went bravely against stereotypes, if only they started investing more in knowledge-building and networking, if only they adapted to assertive decision-making and generally had more presence to fight their claims, they would be more successful. It’s the women’s own problem is the message, heralded by one of their own. But how much substance is there to this argument?

The hidden role of cultural capital

However, steeped in American individualism and pragmatism, the arguments of Sandberg miss some important side conditions of modern gender inequality which we need to understand as its very core. It was Pierre Bourdieu, the French philosopher and sociologist, who made it clear that there is a structural societal background that gender inequalities especially stem from. Bourdieu introduced aside the notion of economic capital the idea of non-monetary, non-financial capital that individuals have access to, can acquire, barter and store, even build a living upon. Economic capital becomes relevant, since it can be exchanged and transformed into other, none-economic capital, when university degrees become subject of admission fees for example. For the non-economic sorts of capital he distinguishes between social, cultural, and symbolic capital, of which social capital stands for access to and relevance in networks, cultural capital for the acquired knowledge and behavioural richness, and symbolic capital for the value of all capital, for the prestige of a person. The more a person can acquire these different sorts of capital, the more vertically and horizontally mobile he or she becomes between the different layers of society. For example, a university degree implies a proficiency in a language that someone without a degree hardly can keep up with. A childhood in a family of academics implies a versatile and eloquent turn in the given tongue that someone being raised in a blue-collar family can almost never reach. The societal ‘pedigree’ and the amount of formal education are important pre-conditions for the eventual societal position of any person. If you have been socialized in the English upper class, this upper class will much more easily welcome and embrace you than if you haven’t. Clearly, the ways in which these capitals can be accumulated reinforce the given distribution. Societal inequality supports societal inequality. Women face the problem of graduating less and, when they do so, preferring degrees in sectors and industries which tend to have a lower societal rank and remuneration than their male counterparts. Strikingly, professions which become feminized experience a reduction of status over time. It is the non-financial capital that women lack and that substantially impedes their societal mobility, on a structural basis, based on a lack of economic capital that furthermore would allow to better acquire non-economic capital. The vast majority of women who Sandberg reaches out to lack symbolic and economic capital compared to their male peers. Sandberg obscures the fact that the accumulation of non-financial capital is mainly a long process of socialization, only partly influenced by individual action. To change this inequality, a toolbox of intervention with a quite different armour is needed, since it is about changing complex, and mainly sublimely operating discriminating gender regimes, and less about individualistic action. And whether this part of modern feminisms, which fancies work as a mere means to emancipation, is better than other predecessors, which aimed to distribute work and non-work-loads differently, is at least worth a second look.

The obscuring impact of modern organizations

Since Sandberg is most concerned with the problem of the glass ceiling, one of the core domains where inequality persists, as is visible in the enduring underrepresentation of women in the management boards of companies, another blind spot needs to be spotted here. The organization, that is, the social order that companies incorporate, is by definition, by its sheer constitution – unequal, asymmetric, in short: hierarchical. More problematically, it represents the core mechanism of modern society for solving one of its core paradoxes. Modern society claims to be an equality-based society, where everybody should have access to all societal sectors and services like the economy, law, politics, or education. Factually, however, this equality is not given. It seems as if the more equality is in demand, the more inequality is the result. According to Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist, organizations ‘help’ solve this problem. Organizations include only a very limited number of people as members, though the sheer number of organizations enables society to include almost everybody in one or more of them. Which role and position the included members acquire is then again open to acquired individual symbolic capital, but this is almost invisible to the outside society. All members of society are included, albeit not equally so. Furthermore, organizations act as a collective person; they establish an address by which they can be reached. Around this address, a fully fleshed-out ‘front’, a façade is established which is shown to the outside world to cover and shelter all the micropolitics, inefficiencies, and all premature innovation from external observation. These facades help to make organizations acceptable on the outside. To establish legitimacy, organizations react to external expectations (such as equality) while disconnecting these from internal realities (such as unbending hierarchy). It took a while for feminist activists and even gender theorists to realize that organizations play a core role in maintaining gender inequality as well. When organizations establish gender mainstreaming programs and announce gender or diversity positions, then this should not be misunderstood as a contribution to societal equality. It is an attempt to meet external societal and moral needs instead, presenting formal and objective measures which, once installed, are driven by internal political games and informality like everything which happens in the sub-cosmos of organisations. Organizations serve their own operational interests and are clever enough to transform external moral demands into internal means, feeding the on-going informal and formal battles.

Another type of organizations?

‘Lean In’ is, in this respect, certainly a necessary and important hygienic factor to keep the movement going. However, given the absence of context sensitivity, it creates a strong risk for women to fail and fall prey to frustration of the second order. Obviously structural shifts of society are required to fundamentally change the equality conditions which let individual action somewhat restricted. Two things might help nonetheless. The first is simple patience, since women have indeed been shown to accumulate symbolic capital over longer periods of time. The rising number of women attending first-tier business schools is a sign of this, although the prospects of female alumni are far from unrestricted. A second glimmer of hope might rest in the advent of new organizational forms, avoiding or minimizing (formal) hierarchy, incorporating equality standards in their core values that conflict with the appearance and constitution of their traditional predecessors. Whether these new forms can escape their paradox-solving role for contemporary society is currently being researched intensively and must remain open here. At least the principle of hope - again - will remain. That the old-schooled business masculinity will get back in its office remains improbable in any case. However, with new organizational and societal forms of order, there might emerge a new form of testonerized daily practises too. To announce and celebrate its societal death would certainly be somewhat premature, to which the currently rising claim for ‘mainstreaming men’ might be only one indicator. 

Related news

  1. Digital transformation and change? It’s all about clarity, stability and company culture

    Date: 17/03/2017
    Category: Opinions
    Innovation and disruption have become fashionable words, but despite how often we use them, not all companies are ready to innovate. Far from it. And digital transformation is no longer something that is left to the IT department to sort out. It is a sweeping change across the whole business. This means that the challenge lies in making the innovation comprehensible to the entire company. An extremely important aspect of this is the approach to your company culture.
  2. Leadership, maturity and simplicity

    Date: 04/11/2016
    Category: Opinions
    One led the Netherlands as Prime Minister for more than eight years, the other has long been an authority in the field of human behaviour and leadership. Jan Peter Balkenende and Herman Van den Broeck meet in Balkenende’s office for a discussion on servant leadership, maturity and simplicity.
All articles