Six years after Sheryl Sandberg's blockbuster Lean In motivated women to work toward closing the gender gap in corporate leadership, many women are choosing to embrace their own path rather than follow prescriptions for success that involved acting more like men. Central to this new movement is Marissa Orr, a Google and Facebook veteran whose first book, Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the Workplace, boldly claims that the gender gap persists largely because of corporate dysfunction and an obsession with competition and winning.
"The book is for anyone who's interested in a new perspective not just on women at work," Orr says, "but on the corporate world in general." While navigating her career in tech as a single mom of three, she found that women received mixed messages. "In some roles, I had a lot of flexibility with my schedule and was able to work from home when needed. In others, my performance reviews pointed to these kinds of things as evidence that I was not doing well in my job."
Orr wrote Lean Out because she felt "disenchanted with the steady stream of advice coming from most female leadership programs at work," which ignored the real concerns faced by working women such as herself and her colleagues. The book is engaging and convincing in part because Orr is so candid in telling the story of her growing disenchantment with Lean In, which began with a series of encounters she had with Sandberg amid switching jobs. "This isn't even about women," Orr writes in Lean Out. "It's about power and personal agenda." The moment was a wake-up call and encouraged her to reassess her goals. As she developed an alternative perspective, she launched a successful public speaking platform of her own. Using this new platform, Orr encouraged women to value their well-being and to stop measuring their worth in money and position on the corporate ladder.
Orr's workshops are a testament to the value of women supporting each other and determining their goals on their own terms, but her book argues that women will continue to face the same narrow framework in corporate environments unless structural changes are made. She explains that most CEOs are not leaders by definition, in that they do not inspire people to follow them. "Research is conclusive in showing that a large portion of people are more motivated by, and perform better in, collaborative environments over competitive ones," she says. "The only way to motivate the entirety of your workforce and make them as productive as possible is to foster environments that bring out their best."
Many companies' diversity programs and gender quotas fall short of effecting change because, Orr says, they fail to adjust to different types of aspirations. "Diversity can't happen by trying to force people into the same narrow template and adopting a singular definition of success," she says. "Our institutions haven't changed since the Industrial Age, a time when few women were in the workforce." With proven research and examples, Orr cracks open the persistent myth that traditionally male leadership traits such as directness are more effective than listening, empathy, and emotional intelligence.
To Orr, "leaning out" also means letting go of what she sees as the false feminism of cutthroat careerists. "The problem with modern feminism is that it has cast a female stereotype as an inferior mode of being and something to avoid," says Orr, who defines real feminism as "empowering women to do what they want to do instead of telling them what they should want to do."
In contrast with other leadership books for women, Orr's is not prescriptive. "Who am I to tell women what they should be doing with their career?" Orr says. "Most books today are like instruction manuals on how to behave, dispensing advice that is largely based on the author's idea of how things should be. I hope that I offer an alternative: a relatable voice that makes women feel heard and understood. And I encourage women to define success on their own terms, whether that's breaking the glass ceiling or leaving the corporate world all together."