When “Do It Yourself” Sends the Wrong Message

Inspirational messages that encourage women to negotiate their way around discriminatory employment practices can lead to unfair attributions of blame, new research shows.

By on / Leadership Skills

For decades, as women have filled the workforce and entered careers once closed to them, a stubborn statistic has persisted: They earn significantly less than men. In 2017, the average woman took home only about 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to the Pew Research Center. Women are also much less likely than men to be found in top leadership roles in many fields.

What’s the best way to ameliorate these gender disparities in the workplace? Two basic approaches have emerged: (1) the systemic approach, which involves reducing bias and discrimination in organizations’ hiring and promotion practices through systemic change, from anti-bias training to the use of hiring algorithms to new laws; and (2) the “do it yourself” (or DIY) approach, which encourages and trains women to negotiate more assertively for their starting salary, benefits, raises, promotions, and other opportunities.

Both approaches are undoubtedly essential. Organizational and societal change is required to level the playing field. But while waiting for employers, legislators, and the courts to make broad changes, many women are taking matters into their own hands.

In her influential book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf, 2013), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called on organizations to reform their hiring practices, but her main message was that women need to “lean in”—that is, to aim higher and take control of their careers. Her book spawned an organization, Lean In, that sponsors local groups in which women can strategize about their careers and learn new skills. Similarly, the new startup 81cents provides women with crowdsourced job-offer and compensation reviews. Women submit information about a job offer, and, for a small fee, a group of seven or eight hiring professionals gives her advice on whether it’s fair and, if not, how to negotiate a better offer.

Doin’ it for themselves?

Recently, the DIY message has been criticized for being overly optimistic about women’s ability to overcome systemic challenges on their own. “It’s not always enough to lean in, because that [stuff] doesn’t work all the time,” former first lady Michelle Obama recently said at an event in Brooklyn, New York.

Obama may have been referencing the results of a recent study that’s forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Duke University researchers Gráinne Fitzsimons, Aaron Kay, and Jae Yun Kim looked at whether the message that women can address inequities on their own suggests that organizational change isn’t needed—and even that women are to blame for their own underrepresentation.

Across six experiments, about 2,000 participants read text from Sandberg’s book Lean In or listened to audio clips from her TED Talks describing women’s underrepresentation in leadership roles. Some of the participants read or listened to what the researchers call “DIY” messages: those encouraging women to negotiate more assertively, speak more confidently, and take greater risks. Other participants instead read or listened to “structural” passages: those emphasizing structural and societal factors holding back women.

Organizational and societal change is required to level the playing field. But while waiting for employers, legislators, and the courts to make broad changes, many women are taking matters into their own hands.

Fitzsimons and her team found that participants exposed to the DIY messages were more likely than those exposed to the structural messages to believe that women are capable of solving the problem of bias. Yet those in the DIY condition also were more likely to believe that women are responsible for both causing the problem and for fixing it.

A two-pronged approach

The study’s results seem to suggest that messages that focus on steps women might take to try to get ahead in their careers, such as improving their negotiation skills, may lead people to conclude that women play a greater role in perpetuating and perhaps even contributing to gender inequality than is actually the case. Fitzsimons and her colleagues note that it’s human nature to blame the victims of discrimination and bias. When we can’t easily address injustice, we often “engage in mental gymnastics to make the injustice more palatable,” they write in the Harvard Business Review.

Negotiation advice and training remain essential components of initiatives aimed at boosting the representation of women in leadership roles and reducing the gender pay gap. But efforts to address inequity and gender bias at the organizational and societal level appear to be even more necessary, for at least two reasons.

First, though they can take a while to enact, policies and laws can have a much larger collective impact on society than the actions of individual women working one by one on their own behalf. Second, structural changes may be less likely to inspire apathy, victim blaming, and the sense that women can and should be tackling inequity on their own.

When working on improving their hiring and promotion practices, organizations need to elicit messages and implement remedies focused on structure, lest efforts aimed at bolstering women’s skills and confidence backfire by implying that women are somehow to blame.

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