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  • Katica Roy

Is It Wrong To Tell Women To Lean In?

Welcome to my weekly Q&A feature. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)

If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. Each week I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.

The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusion.

  • Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.

  • Inclusion: bringing others along on the journey.

Be Brave™

When Leaning In Is Not The Solution


Is there anything wrong with leaning in? More specifically, is there anything wrong with asking women to lean in especially now when the economy is so unstable?

What’s on your mind? ​Ask your question here for a chance to have it answered in an upcoming edition of this newsletter.


It depends on how you define “lean in.”

There’s nothing wrong with asking people to lean in when we want to foster teamwork and ensure everyone carries their fair share of the load. Example:

“We need to launch the new campaign by Q4. I need everyone to lean in because there’s a lot of work to do in a short amount of time.”

There is something wrong, however, with asking people to lean in when what we really mean is: you don’t belong here, so either morph yourself to fit in or move out. Example:

Women need to lean in during salary negotiations so they don’t leave any money on the table. That’s how we’ll close the gender pay gap.”

“Leaning In” Is Not A Solution For Systemic Failure

Leaning in becomes inequitable when we use it as a solution for systemic failure. Imagine a storm takes out the power line. You want to heat up a cup of soup but can’t because the energy went out and the microwave isn’t working. Who do you blame for the cold soup: yourself or the storm that took out the power?

Of course you wouldn't blame yourself. You can’t control the weather. And yet, that’s what we do to women when we tell them to “lean in.” When we ask women to lean in, we effectively blame them for inequitable conditions they can’t control.

Examples Of “Leaning In” Doublespeak

Example #1

  • When we say: Women should learn to negotiate better to earn more money and close the pay gap.

  • What we really mean is: Women’s lack of confidence (a perceived individual shortcoming) is the reason the pay gap (a systemic problem) exists.

  • The truth: This attribution is incorrect: the pay gap exists for myriad other reasons, and not for women’s innate timidity.

Example #2

  • When we say: Women should read more articles about how to communicate effectively.

  • What we really mean is: Women’s “abrasive” communication style (a perceived individual shortcoming) hurts their chances of being promoted (a systemic problem).

  • The truth: Women receive more feedback on their communication style than men, which hurts their candidacy for promotion. One study found that the word “abrasive” appeared 17 times in 13 separate performance reviews of women. The same word appeared zero times in men’s performance reviews.

Example #3

  • When we say: Women can meal prep on the weekend so they can work late and show that they’re a real team player.

  • What we really mean is: Women can not only have it all, they must also DO it all.

  • The truth: Men are 50% of the conversation; it should be the norm that they pitch in to help with unpaid labor too.

Do This Instead Of Asking Women To “Lean In”

Before you ask someone to “lean in,” ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would I say the same thing to this person if they were of another gender or race? (Ideally yes)

  2. Am I deflecting blame for a larger problem by asking someone to do a certain task? (Ideally no)

  3. Am I asking someone to change who they are to meet my requests? (Ideally no)

Curious about something? ​Ask your question here for a chance to have it answered in an upcoming edition of this newsletter.

© 2022 Katica Roy™, Inc.


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