The lean in model

I was preparing a webinar on the topic of leadership and women. The talk was about a model of leadership more suitable for women, which allows to overcome the so-called “double constraint“, so to get out of the dualism “take care = woman, empathetic, emotional etc, take charge = man, strong, decisive etc”. I had intended, at some point, to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” model, which has the virtue of helping women think differently, but not helping systems change. So I looked up French translations of “lean in” because I wanted to be precise. And I got a surprise.  The translation used in France, is “en avant toutes”; that’s also the name of the women’s circles and the movement that started after the book appeared. Using the Reverso dictionary, which translates from literary and common usage, I discovered other translations, very suggestive. In particular, two struck me and I saw them somewhat as the dark side, the shadow of the lean in. One is ” appauvri en ” which made me think: does the woman who “leans in” have to give up something of herself? Must she accept to impose herself, to have something less, to lose a part of herself? The other translation, which struck me even more, is “Inclinez-vous”, curving, bending towards the ground, making oneself oblique. And I thought of the expression “stand up”, often followed by “for your rights” which is exactly the opposite of this bowing down, making oneself smaller (impoverished as in the first translation), depriving oneself of one’s own stature. I thought back to Mary Beard’s beautiful book, “Women and Power, a manifesto” and her analysis of how, over the centuries, the patriarchal model has contributed to the reinforcement of this idea that women who do not conform risk finding themselves with their tongues or heads cut off (Philomela in Metamorphosis, the myth of Medusa).

In fact, I really enjoyed Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean in”, which also had the merit of starting a movement of women who find themselves and support each other around it. And at the same time, I happen to observe, more and more often, that the idea of “personal development” of women, not supported by a systemic development, risks only creating more unhappiness, frustration, a temporary sense of personal well-being often destined to feed a feeling of inadequacy, of not being up to the mark. As if the “fault” of the failure was the woman’s, not good enough to “lean in”, despite all the advice received and the training provided. Much of the work that is done with women unfortunately still starts from an idea that it is up to them to develop, to impoverish themselves (take away characteristics that do not conform), to give up parts of their identity, to try to acquire traits and characteristics that better match the traits of those who take power. It is up to them to improve their visibility, assertiveness, to fight to occupy public space, to take the floor, to count in decisions.

Perhaps after so many years of work and awareness-raising on the subject, so many courses on unconscious bias, so many leadership empowerment courses, so much coaching, it is time to think seriously about systemic change, to operate in depth, to bring out the hidden and implicit part of organizational cultures, which generates strong resistance on these issues, preventing truly “disruptive” changes. The regression we witnessed, with respect to the condition of women, at the time of COVID is only the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, perhaps it is not only women who need to work on themselves, to undertake paths of development, but a whole system of strong, sedimented, implicit power, which must be questioned and reformed, regenerated, so that things can really evolve.

Second generation gender bias

Herminia Ibarra, calls these resistances “second generation gender bias” or invisible barriers: invisible not only for those who find themselves in front of them but also for those who put them up, normally well-intentioned organizations that think they have done everything possible, having promoted training and coaching programs on unconscious bias or on women’s leadership, but which have lacked a passage of collective reflection on culture. In these organizations, there may no longer be blatant discrimination, everyday sexism, but there remains “a sense of disconnection from male colleagues, advice to head for staff roles once a family is established, a feeling of exclusion from key positions” (H. Ibarra, 2013 “Women Rising: the Unseen Bareers” HBR).

What can you do concretely to break down the invisible barriers? Here are some ideas that can help


  • Clarifying the “business case”. What are the performance consequences if things stay the same?
  • Work extensively on biases, fallacies, routines in processes that reproduce avoidable errors, not limiting oneself to a “one shot” nor to an individual work only
  • Look for the skills really required in a role and not the ideal and unrealistic skills (knowing that according to many researches men are self-sufficient for a position even in the absence of the required skills, while women tend not to apply when even a few of the characteristics are missing)
  • Create “safe” spaces where women can learn even when they find themselves in challenging situations. Safety can come, for example, from a collective accompaniment (and not only from individual coaching) in situations such as, for example, being the only woman in a group and in a role defined as “masculine”, a situation in which mental models that generate projection of incompetence risk playing a role that, if introjected, will generate actual incompetence
  • Go in search of gender bias in evaluation systems, 360° multirater feedback, assignment of objectives….
  • Create communities in which women can engage with each other and objectify and develop collective responses to returns such as “you don’t make yourself visible enough,” “you need to work on your empathy” (when assertiveness is manifested), “you need to say no more often,” and a whole host of signals of a leadership model that implicitly does not invite them to occupy the space
  • Rethink leadership models, get out of binary models, equip yourself with inclusive models that allow you to accommodate, within them, complexity