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  • Writer's pictureGeorgia Nielsen

Women don't need to be 'fixed'​, the system does

Updated: Feb 1

I almost didn’t write this article. I was scared of what people would think. Scared that I’d be seen as angry and disagreeable. Scared I’d be told to calm down, to be quiet. Scared that I’d lose clients. And, therein lies the problem.

We're not broken

Last week, I was trying to articulate to two relatively progressive men the problems facing women in the workplace.

Not just the obvious ones, but the hidden, engrained, unseen ones. The problems you don’t realise are problems until someone points them out to you.

I said: “Have you ever been invited to a 'men's leadership course' and told ‘stop saying sorry, stop taking notes, speak up more, speak more about yourself, show less emotion’?”

“Hell, have you ever been invited to a 'men's leadership course' full stop?”

They looked at me and laughed uncomfortably, seeing immediately what took me so many years to realise: how ridiculously wrong this remedy is.

In case you’re wondering, I have been to countless courses with a similar prescription:

Be less respectful, be less diligent, be less thoughtful, be less caring. Be less.

Or, as Marrissa Orr puts it in Lean Out: The Truth about Women, Power and the Workplace:

“Don’t be so ‘you’, or you’ll never succeed.”

To be honest, I myself have provided similar advice to women in my life. But as I read Lean Out I realised that all this time I was taking a prescription for the wrong problem.

Playing the wrong game, fixing the wrong 'problem'

I consider myself a strong, intelligent and ambitious woman. I’ve taken pride many times at breaking through ceilings, being the youngest, and sometimes the only, woman in rooms full of senior male leaders.

But somewhere along the way, I lost sight of what I was trying to achieve. I convinced myself that to stay in those rooms, to truly ‘succeed’ I would need to play the same way as those around me. I would have to work longer hours, never miss a meeting, show off my work, be on constant alert. I would have to stop advocating for change, to edit my opinions. I started to sacrifice the things I valued most. I started to change the things about me that made me a celebrated manager and an inspiring leader.

That is until I realised that it was too high a price to pay.

In Lean Out, I finally realised the truth of the matter: I was trying to succeed in structures and benefit from reward systems that “were created by men, through a male worldview, at a time when virtually no women were in the workforce.”

It described what had been staring at me in the face:

“women are under the microscope for their failure to play by men’s rules, instead of everyone stepping back and recognising that the world has changed, and the rules are no longer working.”

Once seen, the truths laid out to me in Lean Out could not be unseen. And, I made the uncomfortable, but life-changing realisation that I could choose to play a different game. One where I would be rewarded and valued for the traits that make me who I am. I could shape my own career and build an environment made for all people to bloom by being who they are.

Changing the system, not women

Consider this quote by Alexander Den Heijer:

“When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

And yet, the majority of programs I’ve seen tasked with closing the gender pay gap and achieving diversity in the workplace are on changing ‘dysfunctional women’ rather than the ‘dysfunctional system’.

Orr proposes an alternative prescription:

“Diversity happens when companies and organizations create conditions of trust so that people feel comfortable being themselves; offer a variety of rewards; allow both competition and collaboration; design systems to better evaluate performance; and rebalance power in the employee-employer relationship (e.g. by providing meaningful recourse for bad management). The gender pay gap cannot be solved by trying to make everyone the same. It is solved by allowing everyone to be exactly who they are.”

To make real change we must build systems that measure and reward emotional intelligence; that measure manager performance and give promotions not just on output but on employee satisfaction, retention and engagement; and that motivate everyone, not just those who seek power.

Leaning out doesn’t mean giving up, it means “leaning out of anyone else’s story of who you should be and what a successful career looks like.”

If you feel uncomfortable by what you’ve read, if you feel shocked, if you feel seen, if you’re a woman, if you’re a man, if you breathe: read Lean Out.

Front cover of book "Lean Out" by Marissa Orr

Based on in-depth research and personal experiences, Lean Out is inspired by the journey of Marissa Orr, a single mom of three trying to succeed in her fifteen-year career at the world’s top tech giants. In an eye-opening account, Orr exposes the systemic dysfunction at the heart of today’s most powerful corporations and how their pursuit to close the gender gap has come at the expense of female well-being. 

“With female-dominant strengths such as empathy and consensus-building being the future of business, the headlines forecast that women will dominate the future generations of corporate leaders. But that won’t happen until prescriptions for success stop requiring women to act more like men, mistaking traits such as empathy as signals of weakness.”


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