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Leaning In, Pushing Back, and Turning Cannot Into Can: The Real Life Discourses of Women Leaders

Organisation Studies

Speaker:Robyn Remke, Copenhagen Business School
Date: Tuesday 1 October 2013
Time: 4.00 pm
Location: Bateman Lecture Theatre

Further details

The opportunities for professional women in business have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. Women who were once relegated to administrative and secretarial positions now find themselves poised to become the very professionals they once supported. However, shortly within their tenure as young professionals, many women found that their experience of the workplace differed from that of their male colleagues (Hegewisch, Williams, & Zhang, 2012). Significantly, women are not promoted to leadership and managerial positions as often as men (Desvaux, Devillard, & Sancier-Sultan, 2010; Moe & Shandy, 2010). They either opt out (Stone, 2007), hit the glass ceiling (Buzzanell, 1995; Zane, 2002), slip through the pipeline (Barsh & Yee, 2012), are lost in the labyrinth (Eagly & Carli, 2007), get stuck to the sticky floor (Rainbird, 2007), or fall off the glass cliff entirely (Haslam & Ryan, 2008; Ryan & Haslam, 2005).
With this in mind, a number of successful professional women have published books and articles detailing their own strategies and recommendations for professional women. In light of increasingly challenging workplaces, these authors encourage women to lean in (Sandberg, 2013), push back (Rezvani, 2012), and/or to use a sponsor (Hewlett, 2013). These authors further stress that women should ‘turn cannot into can’—and then tweet about it using the hashtag #womencan ( And even though she ultimately evokes the image of Wonder Woman as a cautionary tale (i.e., the “Wonder Women” who try to have the unattainable best of private and professional worlds) , Spar (2013) nevertheless still encourages women to prioritize what is most important in their personal lives in an effort to accomplish more and achieve even greater professional heights. This executive feminism or ‘lean in’ discourse is offered as a call to action for professional women—a modus operandi for professional and personal success.
This talk begins with a discursive analysis of these ‘lean in’ texts. It then examines the discourses of actual women business leaders, discourses that illuminate workplace dynamics far more complicated and contradictory than these ‘lean in’ discourses suggest. In fact, women business leaders actually do lean in, push back, and use other similar techniques in their everyday leadership, but in nuanced and flexible ways that better respond to and negotiate the paradoxical dynamism of the workplace. Analyzing these discourses within the context of the new executive feminism or ‘lean in’ discourse enables managers to better address workplace challenges that contribute to the declining number of women leaders.
Barsh, J., & Yee, L. (2012). Unlocking the full potential of women at work (p. 12). New York, NY: McKinsey and Company.
Buzzanell, P. M. (1995). Reframing the glass ceiling as a socially constructed process: Implications for understanding and change. Communication Monographs, 62, 327–354.
Desvaux, G., Devillard, S., & Sancier-Sultan, S. (2010). Women at the top of corporations: Making it happen (p. 22). McKinsey and Company.
Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2007). Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women become leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Haslam, S. A., & Ryan, M. K. (2008). The road to the glass cliff: Differences in the perceived suitability of men and women for leadership positions in succeeding and failing organizations. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(5), 530–546. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2008.07.011
Hegewisch, A., Williams, C., & Zhang, A. (2012). The gender wage gap: 2011 (No. C350). Washington D.C.: The Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Hewlett, S. A. (2013). (Forget a mentor) Find a sponsor: The new way to fast-track your career. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Moe, K., & Shandy, D. (2010). Glass ceilings & 100-hour couples: What the opt-out phenomenon can teach us about work and family. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Rainbird, H. (2007). Can training remove the glue from the “sticky floor” of low-paid work for women? Equal Opportunities International, 26(6), 555–572.
Rezvani, S. (2012). Pushback: How smart women ask -- and stand up -- for what they want. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16, 81–90.
Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York: Random House, Inc.
Spar, D. L. (2013). Wonder women: Sex, power, and the quest for perfection. Sarah Crichton Books.
Stone, P. (2007). Opting out? Why women really quit careers and head home. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Zane, N. C. (2002). The Glass Ceiling is the Floor My Boss Walks on Leadership Challenges in Managing Diversity. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 38(3), 334–354. doi:10.1177/0021886302038003005


Her research uses a critical/feminist lens to explore the gendered nature of organizations and organizing. I study the ways that organizational members embody practices such as leadership, diversity management and parental leave policies through communication. I also study alternative forms of workplace organizational structures and gendered identity in the workplace.