These Harvard Salary Negotiation Studies Nail Why 'Leaning In' Is Kind Of Crap

I think that a lot of efforts to “empower” women (or whatever group) would be much more impactful if they were turned around on men. Like, I don’t need to be empowered. I need men to stop disempowering me.
Publish date:
July 28, 2014
sexism, work, negotiating, leaning in

According to a lot of not-that-thoughtful people, adversity only exists because we allow it exist. Women don't make more money because we don't negotiate. Black people could avoid becoming middle America's target practice if we only stopped listening to rap music and shunned activewear. Fat people have low self-esteem because we just aren't trying hard enough to ignore the multi-billion dollar diet industry and its effects.

A lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of your lived experiences on Earth actually have nothing to do with you, but with the narrative that your body presents -- at least that’s what I’ve deduced. The narrative can change, sure, but if it does, it's got nothing to do with what you've done to subvert it, and everything to do with other people doing a better job of restraining their inner asshole.

As the genius comedian Chris Rock said of Pres. Barack Obama's election in 2008: "You could say that black people made progress, but to say black people have made progress would mean that black people deserved to be segregated," he said. "The reality is that white people have gotten less crazy."

This brings me to the recent Harvard Business Review article by a Harvard professor that aggregated a bunch of studies which all said that the social and inter-office political implications for women who “lean in,” AKA aggressively negotiate for pay or other things at work, are much more catastrophic than they are for men.

The article’s author, Hannah Riley Bowles, told New York magazine that a lot of that comes down to the script that we are all given about a woman’s motives. Women equal selfless mother-types, so a woman wanting more cash completely goes against that, thereby sending signals that she’s a bitch and making her a less desirable person to work with.

The best thing for a woman to do, which still won’t yield great results, is to adopt society’s script (or pretend to) and become selfless in explaining why you would want higher pay in relation to the company’s needs.

Bowles wrote in HBR that, “I should acknowledge that this idea of using 'relational accounts' or 'I-We' strategies drives some women crazy. It makes them feel like they are bending to unjust stereotypes or simply being inauthentic. I sympathize with that reaction. We were surprised while doing the research that it would be so hard to make the backlash effects go away.”

That. That right there is my whole issue with the “Lean In”-ers. To be fair, I don’t have a huge beef with “Lean In,” the principles therein or women who feel empowered by it. But it drives me nuts that the onus is on the oppressed or under-privileged group to somehow rectify the imbalance. It’s our generation’s flawed bootstrap mentality, a nonsensical belief that you have no power, because you don’t use some invisible power to get power.

What I see in the studies, more than anything, is proof that it doesn’t matter all that much on an individual level how we perform. There’s a huge, old and very powerful macro script going on that tells people how to treat us based on our perceived gender, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, sexuality and anything else that people think they can guess by looking at us. I also think, more and more each day, that a lot of efforts to “empower” women (or whatever group) would be much more impactful if they were turned around on men. Like, I don’t need to be empowered. I need men to stop disempowering me.

I grew up navigating a lot of this terrain at an early age. “You have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” was something that I heard constantly, either in that exact phrase or through more covert lectures. I’m black, and I’m a woman, so I’m automatically not as smart, not as educated, not as qualified -- this is the bigotry that I was told I would have to face.

By and large, that logic has held true. I was 14 when I found out being black didn't help me in the workplace. A white, male colleague of mine at the local Tom Thumb grocery store nonchalantly (and accurately) told me that he probably got more tips than I did when he helped women to their cars, because he was white.

Since then, I’m become accustomed to no one listening to me at meetings, or worse, repeating what I just said and getting lots of praise for the idea. Having had a lot of women bosses over the years, I’ve even felt the effects of passed-down sexism, as teams headed by men seemed to fly past mine and overt aggression and mansplaining were rewarded by higher-ups.

So, it’s not like I don’t get it. I get the burning desire to “fix” this system with a firm handshake, Hillary Clinton-esque pantsuit and self-help tips straight out of a Steve Harvey book. And, to be honest, I haven’t always taken every opportunity to grab workplace sexism by the scrotum. I’ve read tons of advice for women on how to be more aggressive and reap the manly benefits.

But, really, it’s harder than it seems. As women, we literally can’t afford to chuck the deuces to makeup and smiles and pleasantries at the office because the social price of not being perceived as attractive (or, at least, put together) and nice is very real, as the study noted. Same goes for being black and being fat, which basically means that if I listened to a lot of people who give advice about confidence and respectability and leaning-in, I would spend every waking second attempting to ignore, undermine and overcome about 20,000 hurtful stereotypes and assumptions.

No one has time for that.

It’s not that I’ve given up on getting ahead, or that I blame women who have more patience for these kind of corporate mind games than I seem to. I don’t have the answers or even the suggestions. I’m just glad that someone, finally, among all the talk about “just” leaning in, noted how sadistic and unforgiving the system is for all women, whether we play by the rules or not.