Sheryl Sandburg came under intense criticism as 2018 drew to a close for her role in the latest scandals at Facebook. She is best known for her feminist approach and book, “Lean in”. Sandburg wants to transform role of women in work place. “Assert yourself – you can thrive at personal life and at work”, is her cry. While widely applauded there is a dark side to this, because it places too much pressure on women to take action instead of pushing for workplaces to change.
The Role of Women
I think it is fair to say that women are taking action and putting themselves forward, but still there is no underlying change in the corporate environments many of us work in. As a psychologist I believe that this attitude places too much pressure on women to be a certain way. It has parallels with the pressure placed on us by social media, where we all post the happy shiny parts of our lives, leading everyone else in their isolated thoughts to believe that only their life has negativity or low points therefore, “I must be a failure”. This pressure makes it hard to speak out about the reality of our lives or about the way that women experience the workplace differently.
While Sandburg’s ideas acknowledge that women may have a harder journey in the workplace and that there are challenges that they face that may have not even occurred to the dominant force in the workplace, men, it also says “this is on you”. “YOU should be making the change, and you should be happy and energized while doing it”.
But what if, day in and day out you battle the challenges of being a woman in the workplace, while still carrying most of the load at home? What if the challenges are subtle rather than something obvious ones that you can call out?
What if that is your lived experience every day?
Might that wear you down?
And what if, on top of that you are told, “You have to change it. It is your responsibility, stand up and assert yourself”. What is the impact of that?
Does it empower, or does it disempower people?
Does it take responsibility away from the establishment that created these dynamics and issues? If it is a woman’s individual responsibility to stand up and change then it’s not ours, as a collective. We must ask, who has more power to make a change, one individual or a whole organization led by a team of people who are committed to creating change and equality for everyone in the workplace? Which message will be heard more clearly, and which one is more likely to be dominant?
If an organization or leadership team stands up and says, “this is who we want to be and this is what our environment needs to reflect”, change will occur. If one woman stands up and says the same thing then there is a greater risk that she will be judged for it or the message will go unheard.
When the message is, “you can change your personal circumstances by the way you respond and interact with your environment’, then absolutely from a psychology perspective I agree that this is important. Every person has an impact but the shadow side of this, in this scenario is that one individual exists in an environment that is resistant to the change she is attempting to implement in her life and so the battle continues.
In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or step back into safety.Maslow
I submit that the greatest change could occur if organizations and those that lead them step fully into this challenge and tackle it head on. Here is where the most impact will be had, and it’s not just giving a nod to it or ticking a box. It is about wholeheartedly engaging with change and living and breathing those values in a consistent and accountable manner.
This is not a conversation about men dominating women or forcing them into subordinate roles, It is much greater than that. It is about each person taking the time to recognize the realities of the system and the societal pressures that we exist within. We all need to acknowledge the roles we play, consciously or unconsciously, in maintaining these. Because, sometimes even when we think we are standing up or speaking out, we are unwittingly conforming to or supporting the existing realities.
This is about self-awareness and recognizing the ways in which we are culturally inclined to play certain roles. It is not just an issue that affects women, because men are also positively affected by a change towards equality and more balanced lives. Therefore, they have at least an equal responsibility to recognize the roles they play in perpetuating cultures that place women in positions of lesser importance. With the events of 2018 at Facebook it has become clear that, at least in the tech industry, little is expected from the male leaders, while the female leaders, such as Sandburg, are being held to a much tougher standard.
This brings the recognition that we need to see change happen at many levels. Individuals have a huge part to play in any change but in many organizations, hierarchy plays a role. Some people have more of an ability to bring change than others. For change to be truly effective we all need to think about our influence and how we are using it to affect change, and then understand how we might best leverage this to create effective systemic change.
The results that occurs as a result of this pressure on women to be solely responsible for change being removed is less stress, less exhaustion, greater engagement at work and improved innovation and creativity.
As equality establishes itself, and women in particular can feel more valued, they will be able to let go of the daily battles that in subtle ways wear them down, and that energy can be redirected. This is an important consideration for organizational success, that sometimes goes unrecognized. The organizations that can successfully do this are going to be the destinations people want to work. If this is the case, they will have their pick of the talent and are destined to be the ones that thrive and succeed in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.
So, do I agree or disagree with Sheryl?
Speaking as a psychologist who sees these issues play out in workplaces in a very real way. Both. I believe she recognizes and draws attention to some pressing issues for women and for equality in the workplace that are often given at best lip service. But her concepts of asserting yourself, can place too much emphasis on the individual being responsible for all change and perhaps this attitude is why she finds herself in the situation she is now, being held accountable for the mistakes of a multitude of people. The danger inherent in this approach to changing attitudes is we put individuals in danger of burnout and allow the wider systems to abdicate the responsibility for change.