Home News Books like Lean In take women back 50 years, say business experts

Books like Lean In take women back 50 years, say business experts

Female leadership self-help books that focus on individual behaviour are a throwback to the 1960s, according to a new paper by gender and business experts.

Female leadership self-help books that focus on individual behaviour are a throwback to the 1960s, according to a new paper by gender and business experts.

Dr Isabel Metz, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Melbourne Business School, and her co-author Dr Savita Kumra from The American University of Sharjah, were surprised at a recent event to see many of their peers reading Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

"We were surprised to see so many people at an academic conference about management reading a popular self-help book such as Lean In, when the research is many decades more advanced than that," Professor Metz says.

"The approach of books like Lean In, which is to focus on women themselves and what they can do as individuals, is a throwback to a phase of theory we call the 'fix the women' period from the 1960s and '70s.

"It's surprising that books like this seem to be resonating with women more than with men. Traditionally, it has been men who have had a greater tendency to ascribe women's slower advancement in management to women themselves."

In a new paper published in the Academy of Management Perspectives journal, Professor Metz and Dr Kumra argue that there have been three distinct periods of ideas about how to increase the number of women in leadership positions since the 1960s.

"In the first period, from 1967 to about 1976, most of the research on this issue focused on identifying what it was about women that was deficient or was missing, and offered practical recommendations on how to fix those deficiencies – for example, that women needed more education, or to be more ambitious. We call that the 'fix the women' period," Professor Metz says.

"The second period we identified was from 1977 to 1996. In this period, research continued to focus on women, but it also started to acknowledge that interpersonal and organisational factors could be barriers to women's advancement.

"The third period is the last 20 years, from 1997 to today, when researchers began looking at factors that were actually outside of any one woman's control, such as social stereotypes, legislation, national culture and the different gender status ascribed to men and women.

"What surprised us is that books such as Lean In take us back to the first phase, the 'fix the women' period. The question has to be asked – why is that? Why is it resonating with people if it's taking us back decades?

"We concluded that these books are so popular because they promise to empower women to take control of their own lives. They give women hope that there is something they can do that is going to change the status quo."

Professor Metz says there are merits to self-help books about women in leadership, but they won't solve the issue on their own – and women shouldn't believe that they are responsible for solving it individually either.

"Reading books like Lean In isn't altogether a bad idea, because they transfer some of the academic knowledge to the practitioner space. They explain to women, if nobody else, that they're not alone and it's not a 'me' or 'my fault' kind of problem," she says.

"It's true that individual action today will bear more fruit than it may have in the past, because there's an increased social awareness of the need for gender equity in leadership that didn't exist in the 1960s. However individual action on its own isn't going to remove the barriers to women's advancement.

"Companies, organisations and governments also have to contribute to solving this problem that we've been working on for more than half a century. What these books may do is give false hope to women, and to people at the top of organisations, that the problem is going to be solved by women being more assertive."

Professor Metz says there are a number of tangible ways that governments can address the issue of women in leadership through legislation, education and media campaigns.

"For instance, governments could make gender studies or equivalent lessons compulsory at school to help change cultural stereotypes about how men and women are expected to contribute to society," she says.

"They could also use the media in ways that they already do for other issues, like domestic violence, to show that gender equity in leadership is beneficial for everybody and that both men and women have the necessary skills and capabilities to be leaders.

"Another option could be to encourage companies and organisations to adopt better work-life balance arrangements, and encourage men to make use of them, through legislation. These things aren't necessarily new or novel. They are already being done in some countries and sectors, and the system hasn't collapsed. If other governments can do it, we can too."

For more information, photos and interview opportunities, please contact Nick Temelkovski on nick.temelkovski@mbs.edu or +61 439 346 962