After “Lean In”: Research Reflections on Gender Studies

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by Marianne Cooper

In the fall of 2011, I received an e-mail from Professor Shelley Correll, director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Its subject line read: “An opportunity.” Shelley explained that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, was looking to hire someone to do research for her on women and work and to help translate the research into everyday language for a general audience. This seemed like an intriguing opportunity. I said yes, and a meeting was set up.

At this first meeting, Sheryl and I had a wide-ranging conversation about why so few women get to the top. We talked about structural barriers like gender bias and the lack of flexibility in so many jobs. We also talked about internal barriers such as the fact that women often have lower expectations for success than men. At the end of the meeting, we agreed that I would do a preliminary project and then progress from there. I left with a list of topics she wanted to know more about; on my way out Sheryl said, “It’s important to me that I get the research right.” I took this as a positive sign.

About a month later, I sent Sheryl my write up of the research. Later, when discussed the findings by phone, Sheryl asked a lot of questions and was very engaged. She reminded me of the eager students who come to office hours and ask for more reading on a topic. At the end of the call, Sheryl said, “I’m writing a book. Do you want to do the research for it?” “Yes,” I said. “I’m in.” So, along with Sheryl’s writing partner, Nell Scovell, we started working on the book.

The Power of a Sociological Imagination

At the beginning, we underestimated the amount of work involved. I don’t exactly remember the number of hours we thought this would take, but, very soon after we started, I was living and breathing this book.

In some ways, my work on the book reminded me of preparing for my oral qualifying exams in graduate school. I would have a topic, read everything there was on it, and summarize it. The difference with Lean In was that I didn’t keep the summaries just for myself. I would send them on to Sheryl and Nell, they would incorporate the research into a chapter draft, and then we would go back and forth to edit it so that it was both accurate and accessible.

My job was to substantiate points made in every chapter of the book. Over time I began to play another role, which was to bring a sociological imagination to the book—to take Sheryl’s stories, experiences, and observations and combine them with research to show that they were not just her antecdotal experiences. In actuality, they were personal experiences that reflected much larger social patterns. This is one reason why I think the book resonated so much with readers. It was through this combination of story and research, well told, that enabled people to “re-see” their own experiences through a gendered lens.

When people realize that the things they experience are not just individual problems but are often societal issues, it is transformational. Right after the book came out, a woman came up to me at a party, and with tears rolling down her cheeks thanked me for the book. She recounted a story of overhearing a conversation between her manager and a man who was being hired into her same position. The manager offered her male counterpart a salary that was $10,000 higher than the one she was earning. “I thought I was crazy,” the woman told me, “but, after I read the book, I realized that this isn’t just happening to me.” This story showcases the power of the sociological point of view.

Gaps in the Literature

In a testament to the richness of gender studies, there were few areas where I had trouble finding research. In fact, on issue after issue, there was so much research that I was unable to cite all of it in the book. But, there were a few gaps I did come across that need to be filled.

An area where we really need more work is the intersectionality of gender and other categories like race and sexuality. As many scholars have noted, the vast majority of research, especially within the subfield of gender and leadership, has focused on straight, white women. An exception is work by Robert Livingston, University of Sussex, and his colleagues, which found that women of color face distinct penalties when it comes to attaining leadership positions. While white women experience penalties for being assertive, black women experience greater penalties for seeking power and for being self-promotional. When something goes wrong, black women also appear to face harsher criticism, and are seen as less effective leaders than their peers. We need to better understand how membership in multiple social groups impacts the issues and obstacles that women encounter.

Another area where we need new research is on gender socialization and gender development in children. I can’t count the number of times people have said to me, “I treat my son and daughter exactly the same, but they are different. My son likes cars and my daughter likes anything pink.” These kinds of essentialized gender beliefs are widespread. But, when I go to the research to illustrate how gender fundamentally shapes the way we interact with our children, which then influences the outcomes these parents observe, I have to turn to studies done mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. For academics, citing studies from several decades ago is standard practice. But, for the average person, these studies seem woefully out of date and thus not credible. We need more research about how gender works at the micro level in children’s everyday lives.

A Public Voice

After working on Lean In, I have learned a few things about communicating with a general audience. The most important is that we need to get comfortable with getting the gist of our research out. What often happens is that in an effort to be technically accurate, most academics don’t write in a style understandable to the general public. We will spend two paragraphs talking about minor nuances in the literature or use overly complicated jargon like “multivariate analysis.” To us, we would not be doing our jobs if we left this information out. But, including this information makes us incomprehensible to the average person. Making adjustments in how we talk about data is not easy. I have spent many nights concerned about technical accuracy. But, my worry has now been assuaged by something truly revolutionary—the endnote. I used endnotes in Lean In to get into the nuances, the notable exceptions, the theoretical implications, etc. Now, in blog posts, I keep the writing accessible, but I add links to articles that provide all the academic details. If more of us could get the gist of our work out, this would enable sociologists to have a stronger public voice.

Giving Thanks

When the final draft of Lean In went to the publisher, I sat down in my office and cried.  My office looked like a tornado of articles, papers, notes, and books scattered everywhere as my year of research coalesced around pulling together the endnotes. As I looked at all of it, I felt grateful to all of these scholars, mostly women, whose work has made gender a legitimate field of sociological inquiry. There were so many names looking up at me from these papers and books. Behind each neatly typed name was a real person. I thought of the personal sacrifices so many of them made to create this canon—the slights inflicted by colleagues who questioned whether gender was a “real” field of study, partners who were less than supportive, tenures denied—issues that linger today.

I didn’t know what the response to Lean In would be, but I sensed that it would make a splash. I just hoped that it would reignite a conversation about gender, both inside and outside the academy. Thus, it’s been heartening to hear from many professors who have said that the book has had a positive impact on their work. Some have told us that they are now able to teach more gender classes, others have said that their colleagues are now taking their gender-focused scholarship more seriously, and still others have decided to include gender in their analysis for the first time. I am excited to see where this renewed focus on gender takes us.

Marianne Cooper is a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University and a contributor to LeanIn.Org. She was the lead researcher for Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

This article originally ran in Footnotes.

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