"Leaning in" and deficiency in gender discourses of success in higher education

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


In western and particularly United States conversations about equity and women’s professional status, a deficiency mentality increasingly reigns. Women are recommended to “lean in,” or learn a “confidence code” to succeed in what is unproblematically accepted as a “man’s world” of the public sphere. However, “leaning in” or learning a confidence code may be necessary yet insufficient, as the source of women’s struggles for equity cannot simply be attributable to their collective lacking. Such discourses also fail to critically consider how, for example, confident women can continue to be perceived as less-accomplished or less-prepared than confident men, in diverse fields, including academia. Finally, that many fields, and particularly academia, have been historically white and wealthy, as well as male, must also be recognized in conversations about women’s careers. Yet such discussions typically fail to consider the diverse experiences and identities of women across race and ethnicity, class, and other boundaries of difference, which imply myriad possibilities rather than a fail-safe route to professional success.
This paper critically examines discourses of professional success of women specifically in higher education, juxtaposing universalistic research on women’s professional success with the voices of diverse women who have entered or are entering the higher education field (from a review and analysis of primary and secondary sources). Particularly, the paper asks whether diverse women face distinct challenges to their identities, from a holistic standpoint, when they are expected to “lean in” for professional success—and whether such advice is appropriate or even beneficial to them. The paper thus reframes gendered inequity and alienation in higher education by class and race divides that can estrange some women from their traditional communities of affiliation, in contrast to the experience of white, middle-class and wealthy women. How can we understand the distinct experiences of women of color entering academia, when middle-class, white women routinely describe their experiences as alienation, an inferiority complex, and/or imposter syndrome? How does class impact upon gender expectations learned and experienced, in familial and professional relations, for women across race and ethnic lines?
The final part of the paper considers the importance of place, and what lessons apply from this investigation for examining non-western post-colonial contexts where gender frames life choices differently from in the western world, also bearing in mind how race and class concepts are dynamic and fluid from a cross-cultural, comparative perspective. It questions whether race and class can be understood more broadly in terms of majority/minority cultural relations within post-colonial contexts in Asia, where diversity is not discussed in terms of black and white but in terms of national origin, language, and ethnicity. Thus, the paper argues that gender identity in higher education is significantly framed by other factors, challenging the validity of gender deficiency discourse, and broadening the reach of a critical response to gender inequity in higher education globally. Copyright © 2015 AERA.


Conference2015 Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association: "Toward Justice: Culture, Language, and Heritage in Education Research and Praxis"
Abbreviated titleAERA 2015
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityChicago, Ill.
Internet address


Jackson, L. (2015, April). "Leaning in" and deficiency in gender discourses of success in higher education. Paper presented at The 2015 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (AERA 2015): Toward justice: Culture, language, and heritage in education research and praxis, Sheraton Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.


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