Silicon Valley tech giants like Google and Facebook are known for, and tout publicly, a certain progressive ethos of doing business that’s supposedly the opposite of how corporations are known to operate. Now, for the first time, Facebook and Google veteran Marissa Orr provides a first hand, insider look at how employee scores and promotions are really decided in her upcoming book, “Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace” (releasing June 11 via HarperCollins).
More than half a century since the equal pay act, the wage gap still hovers at 80%. Half a billion dollars are spent annually on corporate diversity programs, yet only 5% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Based on in-depth research and personal experiences, “Lean Out,” follows Marissa’s personal journey, a single mom of three trying to find success in her 15-year career at the world’s top tech giants. In an eye-opening account, she 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. She previously wrote about this in a Medium post, giving readers a glimpse into what she experienced in terms of discrimination (sadly also at the hands of women in leadership) and how she learned to find her voice in such a cutthroat corporate world.
The antithesis to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” (which Marissa believes is based on a male worldview), “Lean Out” provides a new and refreshingly candid perspective on what it’s really like for today’s corporate underdogs, while challenging modern feminist rhetoric and debunking the philosophy that suggests everyone has to be the same in order to be equal.
Having actually worked alongside Sandberg at Facebook, Marissa provides a unique behind-the-scenes perspective, exposing the politics and power games that take place in closed door meetings. She offers a compelling new argument for the reasons more women don’t make it to the top while paving a revolutionary path forward to change the trajectory of the lives of women in the corporate world and beyond. If we are serious about gender equality as a society, this is the book we need to be paying attention to in order to see real, tangible change.
We had the opportunity to speak with the inimitable Marissa herself, and learn more about what “Lean Out” is all about, and how it can take the fight for equality in the corporate sector to the next level.
As a single mom of 3, you successfully navigated a career through some of the world’s major tech giants, including Facebook and Google, which are very male-dominated. What are some of the biggest barriers you faced?
My status as a single working mom posed more challenges at Facebook than at Google. At Google, I was able to work from home when I needed to and had a lot of flexibility with my schedule. At Facebook, my performance reviews pointed to these kinds of things as evidence that I was not doing well in my job. To be clear though, the sales and marketing organizations at both companies were not at all male-dominated, and at Facebook, I worked with many more women than men. So the negative feedback I received about my lifestyle needs came from other women.
Why did you decide to write your book ‘Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace’ and what feedback have you received from the press and promotion you’ve done so far?
I was disenchanted with the steady stream of advice coming from most female leadership programs at work. Instead of listening to all of the valid and reasonable concerns we had as working women, we were essentially being lectured on how to act more like men. I was put off by the implication that there was something inherently less valuable about the way we are as women. I couldn’t think of anything less feminist or empowering than holding up men as ‘norm’ and the benchmark to which we should aspire.
The book will be released on June 11th, but the early feedback from friends and people who’ve read it has all been great and makes me even more excited for the official launch.
Many people are familiar with the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” organization, and you are starting a conversation that is very different from hers. Can you tell us what makes “Lean Out’ very different?
“Lean In,” and most books on modern feminism, pin the blame for the gender gap on women — and the solutions revolve around us acting more like men. “Lean Out” suggests that the systems in corporate America are to blame, which haven’t changed since the industrial age, a time when there were no women in the workforce. What makes more sense, rewiring women’s personalities to conform to an outdated system, or rewiring the system to better meet the needs of a diverse workforce?
In your book you also challenge modern feminist rhetoric which can often become performative, in a sense. Talk to us about what you are challenging and why you think it is potentially harmful for women in the workplace?
The central thesis of “Lean In” (and conventional wisdom in general) is that the gender gap is caused by the cultural oppression of women and the damaging nature of stereotypes. In other words, society rewards women for conforming to the female stereotype of being warm, nurturing, and cooperative, and punishes them for stereotypically male behavior such as aggression and being bossy. Because of this penalty, it is believed that women mute their ambition and hold themselves back at work.
However, when you ask women why they don’t aspire to be CEOs and corporate executives, the answers fall along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t be able to balance family and work commitments,’ or ‘not enough personal benefit for the cost.’ Do these reasons seem unreasonable? Do they seem culturally conditioned? One of my problems with the conventional theories are that they dismiss women’s needs and wants instead of addressing them.
Another issue is how we judge female ambition in a way we never do with men. Less than 25% of teachers and 5% of nurses are men. Do we treat it as a societal condition that must be fixed? Are corporate CEOs more important to society than teachers or nurses? Women’s choices are subject to dismissal and condescension in a way that men’s choices are not.
We love that there are more conversations around feminine leadership styles, and de-stigmatizing typically feminine traits so that they aren’t viewed as “weak” or not as authoritative as masculine leadership. What would you say about the importance of embracing feminine leadership styles?
Male and Female styles are equally effective. The problem is, that in the unique power dynamics of the corporate world, the male style gets you promoted more often. It doesn’t however, make you more effective in the job.
With the influx of diversity programs, gender quotas and initiatives to get more women in the boardroom and leadership positions, the actual numbers show something is not working. Can you tell us from your experience and research what the problem is within many of these corporate programs?
They don’t work because they’re not solving the real problem. People are diverse by their very nature. The reason that diversity isn’t reflected at the top of the corporate world is because only a very narrow subset of human behavior and personality traits are recognized and rewarded. Diversity can’t happen by trying to force people into the same narrow template and adopting a singular definition of success. It happens in exactly the opposite way: by creating the systems and environments that foster trust and truth so that people can be themselves and contribute their full range of capabilities.
Why do you think there is still such a zero-sum mentality among women when it comes to promotional or leadership opportunities?
Because the corporate world is mostly a zero-sum game. It’s a competitive system which by its very nature, requires someone to lose for another person to win. Promotional spots are scarce and the competition only becomes more intense with each rung you climb on the ladder.
You also talk about how the problem in the corporate world may not just be a male thing, but a systemic flaw. How so?
Corporations are structured as competitions for power and dominance. In such systems, aggression, self-aggrandizement, and desire for dominance are the winning traits and behaviors. These behaviors correlate more highly with men, but they do not correlate more highly competence, good performance, and leadership skills.
For women who are frustrated with their career trajectory and are looking for support or guidance, what advice would you give?
It took me years to realize that I was working hard for things I didn’t necessarily want, like big management positions and certain positions in a hierarchy. I spend a whole chapter on this in the book, but in short, my advice would be to turn inward and do the internal work to figure out what it is you want and need so you can define success on your own terms instead of letting the system dictate what it means to ‘succeed.’ For me, I became a lot more satisfied once I defined my goals around well-being instead of winning.
Finally, what makes you a powerful woman?
I trust myself to handle whatever life throws at me.
You can pre-order and purchase ‘Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power and the Workplace’ by clicking HERE.