Thursday Thinkpiece: Lean Out—How to Dismantle the Corporate Barriers That Hold Women Back

Each Thursday we present a significant excerpt, usually from a recently published book or journal article. In every case the proper permissions have been obtained. If you are a publisher who would like to participate in this feature, please let us know via the site’s contact form.

Lean Out—How to Dismantle the Corporate Barriers that Hold Women Back

Maureen Fitzgerald
© 2016 CenterPoint Media. Reprinted with permission.

Maureen F. Fitzgerald, PhD is a gender diversity advisor and author of 11 books. She practised labor and policy law for 20 years and taught at two universities. She has a BComm, JD, LLM, and a PhD. Lean Out is the first book in a series entitled Women in the Lead.

Excerpt: from the Preface

Why Lawyers Need to Lean Out and Not Lean In

“Enough about the glass ceiling. It’s time to redesign the building so that women and men at all levels can be good employees and good family members.”
~ Ellen Bravo

fitzgerald-lean-out-front-cover_kindleI have always believed in gender equality. I had parents who told me that the sky was the limit. I went to the most prestigious universities and was selected for the most amazing jobs. For the bulk of my career I refused to admit that there were any barriers that held me back.

As an accountant, a lawyer and a professor, I never felt I was being treated unfairly. I was thrilled to earn good money and felt like I was contributing. In fact, I tried to convince younger women that the glass ceiling was all in their minds. I urged women to vigorously compete head-to-head with men and “may the best man win.” I would never admit that I was a feminist or that I had friends who were feminists and I frankly found it distasteful to complain or whine. But then I had my eyes opened.

My Story

Around 10 years ago, at the pinnacle of my law career, I returned to work after a short maternity leave, only to discover that there had been a “re-org.” My boss told me that I had been moved into a new position and would get a minor raise. Although he called it a promotion, it was a mundane job with no growth potential. It required that I report to three (not one) male bosses, two of whom used to be at my level and, to top it off, I was now moved to an interior office with no windows. I felt as though I was being squeezed out of my high-paying job as a lawyer into a tiny box. As a result, my world completely shattered.

All the myths I had told myself for 20 years about equality and fairness came into focus and I could no longer pretend. It was as if all of a sudden I came face to face with all the lies I had lived by.

I felt as if I had been naive or blind. I had fallen hook, line and sinker for the propaganda that women are completely equal. I accepted the lie that because I was a lawyer, I had equal opportunities and unlimited choices.

I did not mind when I didn’t get invited to client lunches. I did not care when all the male lawyers played golf in the middle of the day (even though I could play better than most of them). I did not really notice when my male peers got more of the interesting files. I did not mind that I worked all alone in the office until the wee hours of the morning. I was flattered when I was asked to do pro-bono projects (that men steered clear of). I silently accepted requests to take notes at meetings and serve coffee, chalking it up to rites of passage.

20/20 Hindsight

Looking back, I see things quite differently. Even as a young star, I was always on my toes, rarely relaxed and often stressed. I worked obscene hours and met ridiculous deadlines. I was kept out of influential meetings and projects. People with fewer skills than me were promoted without explanation. I was constantly working overtime to make up for the time I took off to take my children to the dentist or doctor or teacher professional days. I was overlooked for obvious promotions. I had to fight for the smallest raise. I was given menial work. And when I mentioned this observation to my peers, I usually got a shoulder shrug or a comment like, “Suck it up, buttercup” or “Welcome to the real world.”

And to make matters worse, I blamed myself for all these happenings. I recall often thinking that there must be something terribly wrong with me. Maybe I really was difficult to get along with? Maybe I was not as smart as I thought? Maybe I had offended someone important? And because I thought it was my fault entirely, I dared not complain. I felt ashamed and I lowered my expectations. I lowered my self-esteem, I bent my head down and I worked even harder. I chose to remain blind and convinced myself that I just needed to be faster and tougher.

I had absolutely no idea that there were barriers holding me (and most other women) back and I had no idea how invisible, destructive and resilient they were.

The Missing Piece

Once I began research for this book, I quickly realized that I was not alone. This situation was not personal to me. I was simply a cog caught in the wheel of the invisible systems and institutions that hold many women back. Even though as a lawyer I knew about sexism and discrimination, I had no idea of the depth of the problem until I felt the sting on a personal level. It was not until I felt the pain that I decided to write.

In a nutshell, the research on women says this: Women are not the problem. The way we treat women is the problem. Women in our society face expectations and barriers that males do not. Whether at work, at home or in public, women are swimming in a sea of cultural rules that we inherited from our ancestors. And many of them are holding women back.

Although women know at a gut level that they face many obstacles, they do not know how to define them or to deal with them. And sadly, most women are so overworked they do not have the energy to turn their minds to the real things that are limiting their success.

About this Book

In Lean Out I shine a light on our corporate culture and the hidden systems that hold women back. I want women to see that it’s not their fault they are not progressing as they had hoped. I want them to know that working harder or smarter will not actually lead to success, at least not in the long term, or it will likely come at a very high cost.

I think of this book as the other half of the best-selling book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. That book mostly urges women to change themselves by being tougher and more courageous if they want to get ahead. Lean Out urges both women (and men) to deal with our culture and shatters the thinking that women are mostly to blame for their lack of success. It shifts our focus to our systems, institutions and biases and shows how they are grossly unfair to more than half the population.

It is time to stop burdening women with the blame and responsibility for fixing an entire culture that treats women unfairly. It’s time to tell the truth and truly allow women to be all they can be.

My Nightmare

Recently I had a dream about my research and it helped me understand why this book is so important. I dreamed that hundreds of women in all shapes and sizes, wearing brightly colored suits, were blindly walking off a steep cliff, one after another, to their deaths. It seemed to me that no one had told them that there was a cliff or had warned them about the potential dangers in the area. It was as if they had no clue. It reminded me of the joke we used to share in the workplace. When someone clearly offended the boss, we would say, “Didn’t you get the memo?” as if we all knew what was really going on. Women are the 50% of the population that did not see what was happening to them because it was not obvious or predictable to them.

Lean Out is that memo – the one that women need and deserve.

Comments are closed.