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The problem with women leaning in

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Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's best-selling book implores women to overcome gender inequality by embracing their ambition and leaning in at work.

But speaking at the Future of Work conference at the University of Melbourne on Tuesday, Professor Michelle Ryan highlighted the problem?with Sandberg's advice.?

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"If we are going to empower women to lean in, we have to make sure we give them something to lean towards," Ryan says.?

Massive stagnation in gender equality

Ryan is professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter and is best known for first describing the phenomenon of the?"glass cliff",?describing the perilous position of women at the top.?

She is concerned that, while there has been great change in gender equality, it has not been great enough and there has been "massive stagnation" over the past ten years.?

"We still see in the most highly prestigious sectors and the most prestigious roles that women are still incredibly under represented," she says.?

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Sandberg's Lean In delivers an empowering message to women on how to make the right choices?to be successful.

But Ryan warns that focusing on women's choices places the onus of gender equality on women.

"It's a little bit of blaming the victim," she says. "If you blame women?for workplace inequality, the solution is to fix women."

A barrage of women's leadership programs and negotiation academies have sprung up and are aimed at changing women and they way they approach their careers.

"What they don't do is address structural barriers," says Ryan. "What it really does is leave the status quo untouched. We should be looking at how context and our norms actually might shape and constrain women's choices. Our ambition and motivation and willingness to sacrifice do not occur within a social vacuum. They are shaped and constrained by organisational and social context."?

Ambition??

Ryan has been conducting research into ambition and says, while there is a stereotype that women are less ambitious than men,?when you look at the data, it is much more complicated.

In studies of undergraduate women doing police training and women doing doing surgical training, Ryan has found women are equally ambitious at the start but become less ambitious over time.??

"What's consistent is the fact these women have spent a fairly significant amount of time in a pretty male-dominated environment," Ryan says. "For women when they look up … it's harder to project yourself forward. Being in a male-dominated environment may affect your ability to project yourself forward and express ambition."?

Ryan has found businesses and organisations can change feelings of fitting and belonging so, if people feel like they fit in, they will be more ambitious and committed.??

"Organisations need to provide a culture and context that fuel women's ambition and motivation rather than stymie it," she says.

Work-life balance

Another area of research for Ryan is work-life balance.

"The best predictor of work-life balance was fitting in, feeling like you belong, feeling like people like you have made it," she says.?

But Ryan says most?interventions on work-life balance are about time, such as offering part-time work and time for caring, such as maternity leave.

"At worse they could exacerbate issues of fit and work-life balance," she says. "Who at the top works part-time?".?

Risk and sacrifice

In a study this year of 870 middle managers at an international accounting firm, Ryan found "almost zero differences" between men and women in terms of their?ambition and desire for?work-life balance.

But where they did differ was in women's?willingness to sacrifice and take risks.

Ryan says this is perhaps unsurprising as?the benefits of making sacrifices and taking risks is not the same for?women.?

"Just look at the gender pay gap, there is less benefit?to?taking?risk," she says.?"There are also potentially larger sacrifices to make in terms of norms that society has in terms of who looks after children, who is the primary bread winner. The take-home message here is women take a clear cost-benefit analysis when evaluating risk and sacrifice."?

Ryan says businesses need to provide women with something to lean towards.

"Women's choices are important to look at,?but we shouldn't necessarily take them on face value. We need to understand how they are constrained by context."

Leaning in by itself just doesn't?cut it.?

Follow?MySmallBusiness?on?Twitter,?Facebook?and?LinkedIn.?

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