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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Travel Grant Report by Teri Kirby

29.04.2019, by Tina Keil in grant report

University of Exeter; Visit to New York University

Exeter-NYU Group in total, 2 pictures
Exeter-NYU Group

Messages to “Lean In” Impact Female Leaders

With support from an EASP Travel Grant, I visited Professor Madeline Heilman’s lab at New York University during April 2018 to develop a new research project. The goal of the project was to understand the impact of organisational programmes and societal messages that encourage women to “lean in” (Sandberg, 2013), or be more agentic in male-dominated workplaces (also known as an assimilation approach; Hahn et al., 2015), particularly when striving for leadership roles. Although “lean in” messages are intended to empower women, we hypothesised that they might also backfire for some women.

In particular, we expected that rather than increasing women’s self-efficacy, these messages may instead highlight stereotypes of women and perceptions of women’s shortcomings, thereby decreasing some women’s self-efficacy. This is because messages to lean in imply that women lack the skills, particularly prototypically male ones, needed in the workplace (e.g., confidence, assertiveness; see Ely & Meyerson, 2000). However, we expected that these patterns would differ depending on women’s gender identification (i.e., how central their gender is to their sense of self). Specifically, women with high gender identification would find lean in messages disempowering because it conveys that an identity they value is actually devalued. However, for women with low gender identification, lean in messages would empower them to distance from stereotypically feminine qualities, which is consistent with their self-concept (see Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002).

During the visit, we designed and ran a first study. It showed that lean in messages are indeed empowering for women, but that this does not depend on their gender identification. We plan to follow up this study to understand whether lean in messages also empower women to engage in counter-stereotypical activities. Since the visit, I have received a UK government research grant from the Economic and Social Research Council to examine the impact of gender diversity initiatives on women’s leadership outcomes. This grant will give Professor Heilman and I funds to follow up on these initial findings (among others) and publish a peer-reviewed paper.

While at NYU, I was also able to network with members of Professor Heilman’s lab, including Francesca Manzi and Yana Toneva, who do research very relevant to my own. I presented my ideas at multiple lab meetings and solicited feedback from the rest of the group, as well as giving feedback to others who were trying to develop research studies. I also attended the NYU Psychology seminar during that month and met several other researchers doing similar research, including Dr. Maureen Craig, Dr. Kay Deax, and some of the PhD students in the department.

I am grateful to EASP for this wonderful networking opportunity and to Professor Madeline Heilman for hosting me and developing this project with me. I’m also grateful to her lab group for their very helpful feedback and for welcoming me to the group!