KNOWLEDGE: Gender Issues in Fundraising – Lean In or Lean Out?

That fundraising is beset by gender inequality is not in question. But how should the profession seek to redress these inequalities? Ruby Bayley-Pratt examines at the pros and cons of two different schools of thought.

This blog is part of the Gender Issues In Fundraising Project run by Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.

Ruby Bayley-Pratt

Fundraising is a disproportionately female profession, even more so than the charity sector as a whole. Despite a healthy pipeline, far more men than women hold positions at the top. But what actually is fundraising’s gender problem? And what approach do individuals, charities, and institutions need to take to tackle it? This blog describes two different schools of thought on gender equality theory – Lean In and Lean Out – and asks us to think about how they have played out in our efforts to address inequality in fundraising so far.

Lean In

Lean In is a school of thought that was officially formulated by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in 2013 with the publication of her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Its central tenet is that women, socialised by gender stereotypes, unconsciously hold themselves back from professional advancement due to misplaced insecurity, passivity, and a lack of ambition. 

Leaning in is an approach that presents individual solutions to navigating the patriarchy with the idea that change at the top will trickle down; so more women in power = better outcomes for all women. It proposes that women can have it all if they lean in to gender inequality and bias by projecting confidence, seizing all opportunities at home and at work, and essentially forcing a seat for themselves at the table. 

This includes things such as:

  • negotiating your salary and benefits
  • not slowing down in the lead up to having a child
  • not avoiding jobs you don’t think you are qualified for
  • not taking too long for maternity leave
  • not worrying about being liked in the workplace
  • being more assertive
  • joining peer support circles (Lean In Circles)
  • taking more career risks. 

Lean Out

In response to Lean In, an opposing school of thought termed Lean Out has emerged. Pioneered by feminists such as Dawn Foster and bell hooks, leaning out calls for the onus to overcome gender inequality not to be on the individual woman but on governments, institutions, companies, and society as a whole. 

Leaning out has one of the main criticisms of leaning in at its core – that a trickle-down feminism centres the concerns of an élite minority of women and not all of us. It calls for widespread systemic change instead, essentially a dismantling of the patriarchal system which creates the very conditions that Sandberg’s strategies teach us to overcome.

This might sound abstract, but in practice this could look like: 

  • government policy reform (e.g. more paternity leave)
  • more government funding for things like childcare
  • better education (e.g. on gender stereotypes)
  • better workplace policies (e.g. flexible working)
  • healthcare reform (e.g. better pay for care work)
  • changing organisational cultures (e.g. perceptions around work-life balance).

The merits and pitfalls of both

Leaning in has become a key part of modern feminist discourse. Its self-actualising approach can be empowering for individual women by offering them practical and rational ways to succeed in ‘a man’s world’. It enables women to feel they can do a great deal to improve their own lives on an individual level.

One study found that women became more confident in asking for the compensation they felt their work deserved as a result of Lean In. Another study found that de-emphasising gender differences increases women’s confidence and makes them feel they are more able to overcome challenges at work. There is also possible evidential support that women’s networking events, such as Lean In Circlescan have a positive impact on things like pay rises and promotions. And there are several success stories that back all of this up: women have shared their stories of improved confidence, drive, and success as a result of adopting the philosophy.

Lean In Circles  can have a positive impact on things like pay rises and promotions

That said, the approach has been criticised for being too narrowly focused on privileged women – educated, white, wealthy – and ignoring issues faced by working class women, single mothers and women of colour. 

In addition, critics say it downplays other structural issues and inequalities that are embedded in work-life as it is, such as a lack of family-friendly policies, the myriad ways women are impacted by unconscious bias, the impact of austerity, sexual harassment in the workplace and barriers to reporting it, unpaid care work, and the effects of emotional labour. And it ignores the intersections of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and transphobia and homophobia, by assuming that if all women follow the same advice they will receive the same benefits*

Dawn Foster argues Lean Out is liked to a neoliberalist capitalist society that is incompatible with true gender equality

One study by Duke University even found that, when exposed to lean in messaging, people are more likely to believe women are responsible for causing gender inequality and to hold them responsible for fixing it. They were also less likely to think that structural changes would make a difference. Dawn Foster in particular links the lean in message – the message of focusing on individual success in your career and your family life over collective rights, workers’ rights, and a change in women’s position in society as a class and as a whole – to a neoliberal capitalist society which is incompatible with true gender equality. 

In many ways, leaning out is everything that leaning in is not: at its core, an emphasis on the need for structural change, with the onus on policymakers, governments, and business leaders to create change, rather than on the women they oppress.

But this is an incredibly complex and sometimes overwhelming concept. You only need to look at the number of different targets under the UN’s Gender Equality Sustainable Development Goal to see this is the case. It also relies on our ability to agitate and influence those people in positions of power (often men) which leaves us in a bit of a double bind. 

Fundraising – lean in or lean out?

When we discuss gender inequality through the lens of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in our sector, we tend to centre the disproportionate number of men in leadership positions. Our default solution to this problem has been to focus our efforts on empowering more women to smash the glass ceiling and get into leadership positions through initiatives such as mentoring schemes, leadership development programmes and discourse calling for women to stand up and be bold.

Examples of this are the UK Institute of Fundraising’s Manifesto for Change, which will offer a women into leadership programme’, and the US Association of Fundraising Professional’s Women’s Impact Initiative mentoring programme and suite of educational materials which, although they do touch upon sexual harassment, are mainly comprised of resources about leadership, ambition, communication skills and negotiation. 

Do initiatives such as the IoF’s Manifesto for Change lean more towards Lean In or Lean Out?

But what about factors such as the conflation of stereotypically female qualities with what it takes to be a good fundraiser? Or the parallel between fundraising’s secondary status compared to operational delivery in charities and women’s secondary status in society? The prevalence of the gender pay gap? The link between low wages and the availability of part-time work in our sector and a woman’s traditional role in the home? The fact that even within fundraising, women dominate less‐highly valued roles like prospect research and events? The disproportionate levels of sexual harassment experienced by female fundraisers? And all the other systemic factors that contribute to gender inequality more generally?

So the question we really need to be asking ourselves is: are charities and professional fundraising organisations tackling gender inequality in systemic as well as individual ways?

What to do next?

  • Read more: the links above are a good place to start.
  • Assess your workplace and professional associations’ initiatives on gender equality. Are they mostly one type or the other? What does that say to you about how gender issues are viewed in those organisations?

* Since 2015, leanin.org has funded the Women in the Workplace study – the largest study of the experiences of women working in corporate USA. 2018’s report focuses on structural issues and puts the onus on companies to take more action towards gender equality. It also looks at the intersections of race, ethnicity and sexuality.


  • Ruby Bayley-Pratt is policy and research manager (fundraising) at British Red Cross and a trustee of Bloody Good Period. 

Further reading

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