The XX Factor

More Businessmen are Leaning In. How Is That Working Out for Women?

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom read Lean In.

Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend, the New York Times Style Section spun its big trend piece wheel and landed on “Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In” and “but now, [unexpected demographic] is joining in,” resulting in a story on the businessmen who are unexpectedly joining Sandberg’s campaign to advance women in the professional workforce. Let’s take a look at how these men are “leaning in,” and how that’s going for the women who (still overwhelmingly do not) work at their companies.

Men are purchasing Lean In: James Dominick, who “oversees around $1 billion in assets for a South Korean bank in New York,” has bought Lean In for nine male friends and colleagues. Great! Let’s see what they’ve learned.

Men are learning to understand women: “After reading the book, I now understand that women are promoted on achievements and men are promoted on promise, which is something from a behavioral bias standpoint just worth knowing,” says Dominick. “The theme that stuck with me is how gender roles and behavioral expectations play a silent but strong force in the workplace—and that in many ways, as a leader it’s my responsibility to understand them so we can have the most productive workplace,” adds Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom. “If we are not aware of these issues, how can we solve them?” asks Kunal Modi, an associate at McKinsey & Company in San Francisco (and an “unpaid adviser to”). So the first step is to be “aware” of gender dynamics in the workplace that are “worth knowing.” But what’s the second step?

Men are talking about women: “Like in a lot of organizations, many of our senior leaders are men,” says Ric Elias, founder of technology marketing company Red Venture. “I wanted to create an environment where there is a level of candor where we can talk about questions like, ‘How do we as an organization provide the flexibility for people to be able to manage the different priorities we all have in life?’” So talking is the second step. OK. What’s the third step?

Men are organizing all-male panels, thanks to Lean In: Stephen Reilly, the executive director of the Fulbright Association, “advocated for an all-male panel at the Fulbright Association’s annual conference last month called ‘The Missing Voice on Gender Equality: Time for Men to Speak Up.’” Hmm. I’m pretty sure that’s not the third step.

Men are encouraging their female employees to “lean in”: “John Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco, and Bob Moritz, the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, have led efforts to bring Lean In Circles, self-organized groups that use free materials provided by Ms. Sandberg’s foundation,, to their companies. … There’s even a father-daughter Circle.” Nope. Not that, either.

Men are listening to women: “When I talk about the book,” says Dominick, “the harshest critics are women, not men.” Getting warmer!

Men are actually sucking it up and hiring women: After reading Lean In, EverTrue founder Brent Grinna hired the first woman, Elisabeth Carpenter, to his management team. “I’m convinced by both Sheryl and the data of the benefits of having gender balance on a leadership team,” he told the New York Times. One woman doesn’t a “gender balance” make, but hey—it’s a good third step.

Lean In hopes to correct for the low representation of women in business by instructing women to painstakingly manage their office behavior, human emotions, and family commitments in the hopes of advancing in a male-dominated field. Sandberg focuses her message squarely on women not because she denies the existence of structural inequalities that put us at a disadvantage in the professional workforce, but because working hard to get what we want beats waiting for powerful men to extend us helping hands. The book doesn’t place similar obligations on men to change the ratio. So when the men who do dominate these structures—like the male founders and CEOs of companies that chiefly employ other men—pick up the book, it’s easier for them to believe that they’re actually helping women by simply being “aware” of the problems Sandberg is urging women themselves to fix. In other words, if a bunch of guys are talking about the issue, it must be getting solved.

Lean In will only help these men help women if they carefully read between the lines. (And if they insist on sharing it with their boys’ clubs, structural critiques of Sandberg’s argument should also be required reading.) If anything, the demands Sandberg places on women to speak up (but not too loudly), to cry in the office (except when they shouldn’t) and to advocate for family time (but not too much) are instructive in their absurdity. CEOs don’t need to facilitate Lean In circles to help women navigate these divides correctly. They need to take a look at their own gender biases, then stop making excuses for failing to hire and promote women in their organizations. In other words, they need to “lean in” too—just not exactly where Sandberg is leading them.