Throughout the ages, women pursuing success in traditionally male-dominated careers have found their paths impeded by myths. Myths like, ‘women are not good leaders’, ‘women cannot manage money’, ‘women shouldn’t be lawyers’. The list goes on.
Now, Andi Simon PhD, anthropologist, businesswoman and author, dismantles these beliefs in new book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business. In the book, she delves into the stories of individual women, elaborating on the challenges they faced in the workplace; and she explores how they overcame those challenges to achieve success.
We spoke to Andi about her new book and her career so far.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do as an anthropologist and what drew you to this work?
I discovered anthropology when I was in college. The approach — observational research and social listening — offered me something that caught my imagination. The assumption is that people go about their daily lives allowing habits to drive them. When asked what they do and why they do it, they often do not know.
The observational method, the focus on the stories they share, and the understanding of common values, beliefs and behaviours allow anthropologists, and me, to capture the essence of what people do, why they do what they do, and the cultures that support them.
My early work was on immigrants and how people change their cultures to adapt to new environments, as well as what happens to the communities they leave.
What inspired you to write this book?
Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business developed out of the work my husband, Andy Simon, and I were doing at Washington University in St. Louis.
We had created the Simon Initiative for Entrepreneurship to help men and women who had big ideas and want to turn them into successful, entrepreneurial businesses. What we learned as we listened to women, in particular, was that they were looking for role models. They didn’t want to be Sheryl Sandburg. They wanted to be innovators, creators, and capable of taking their ideas to market.
I began to write Rethink to provide great role models of successful women who were much like them. As it developed, we realized that these women were smashing the myths of women could and should do. At the end of the book, I also realized that there are many women who might want to rethink their own life’s journey. I added some insights we have gained as anthropologists about how people change or resist change.
The six steps are being turned now into an online course that we will launch March 1 called Rethink Your Journey with Andi Simon. My hope is that the book inspires women and young women to capture their hopes and dreams and make them happen. No longer are there those myths holding them back. They can become the women they want and deserve to become.
Can you tell us a bit about the myths commonly women tell themselves around work?
Some of the most limiting myths include:
1. ‘Women cannot lead’
They are not decisive. They discuss and debate too much. Women are slow to make decisions. The myths about what women can or cannot do surround leadership in such a way that men just believe that putting a woman into a leadership role will be a ‘big’ mistake. They often put them into these roles when they have a problem so big that the men cannot seem to solve it. Jane Fraser going into Citibank has spent her career doing turnarounds. Maria Gallo went into Delaware Valley University to jump-start its growth after it had stalled. Jamie Candee repeatedly took leadership roles to sustain the growth on an organization using leadership methods that were more collaborative, client-focused and empowering of her staff.
2. ‘Women are not creatives’
When shown two samples of something, two homes, for example, focus group members would rank those designed by a man as better than the one crafted by a woman—even when they were both crafted by the same person. Craft beer research showed that when people were told that the beer was developed by a woman it was ranked worse than the same beer that they said was created by a man.
Babette’s Ballinger found that she was continually growing fashion businesses that were run by men but where she was the creative genius behind their success. Of course, that was until she created her own business, American Knitwear and Babette Ballinger, that became superstars in the women’s knitwear business.
Delora Tyler sat in meetings at the Detroit News and despite the fact that she was the star salesperson, they never listened to her comments or suggestions. Then she launched First Media Group and became a success story.
3. ‘Women aren’t successful entrepreneurs’
Today less than 4% of the VC money goes to women entrepreneurs. Those reviewing pitches view women as more negative than men. The problem is that without investors it is hard for women to be successful, much less as successful as their male counterparts.
Then there is Stephanie Breedlove who created Breedlove & Associates, creating a specialized company serving the nanny tax business. Her parents and in-laws all told her not to leave her corporate job to be an entrepreneur. She did anyway and became so successful that she sold Breedlove & Associates for $50 million to Care.com.
4. ‘Women should never become lawyers’
At least that was what Andie Kramer was told by a family friend when she was a young girl. She wanted to be a successful attorney and did just that. Of course, she had to hurdle over those brick walls that the men created to keep her out. Her story is one of the patience and persistence of women in the legal profession where over 40% of the attorneys in the U.S. today are women yet barely 29% of the partners are women.
How can women lead differently, and why might this be a good thing?
During the pandemic, a lot of articles were written about how Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Arnaud in New Zealand, led their countries, at least at the beginning, in ways that were different from their male counterparts. What were the differences? Well, they assembled teams of experts to bring the science to the forefront of their decisions. They made clear decisions and shared them frequently with their countrymen. They used technology to help identify the trends and manage the crisis. And they knew when to shift their decisions to reflect the changes taking place in the pandemic.
Their behaviours were often criticized more for what people were saying about women leaders than for what they did. The women we wrote about led in similarly collaborative ways. They know how to process facts, science and opinion so that they are grounded in the real not that surreal. Jamie Candee struck us as an amazing illustration of a leader as she listened to her clients, to her staff, and then worked together to forge a strategy, that she systematically drove into the organization. Her success was recurring growth, innovation, and employee engagement.
Tell us about the change you want to see in the world as a result of Rethink?
We are working with others to help rethink the place of women in our society, across the globe. It is time to recognize the talent they bring, the perspectives they offer, and the respect they deserve. Think about it. Women have to raise our next generation, earn a living, and care for others while they are deemed, abused, deterred and disagreed with. Why? Gender bias and bias against women of colour are corrupting of the opportunities women bring to the workplace, to society, and to the systems that we need to thrive as humans.
How we raise our children has to change so boys and girls respect each other. Our schools have to tell new stories about the skills and capabilities of young men and women. Our workplaces have to recruit, train, develop and promote women with the same measures as men—without affinity bias or gender bias. That means we have a lot of work to do. Biases don’t just come out of anywhere. They emerge and surge over time until we purge them. It is time to change the myths holding us back, the stories we tell of our heroes and heroines.
What is your career highlight?
Great question. I think I am still on a journey. I have been a tenured professor of anthropology, a visiting professor teaching entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis, an executive in three banks and two hospital systems.
My business has thrived for almost 20 years. I am an award-winning author of On the Brink: A fresh lens to take your business to new heights. And I’m a highly recognized podcaster. I have over 450 workshops, speaking engagements and lots of clients.
My new book, Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business is getting rave reviews, and my hope it will set the framework for helping women everywhere become the best that they can be.
Hard to know what comes next. But I hope to write a version of Rethink for 11-year-olds like my granddaughter so she can become the surgeon she is dreaming of becoming.
What obstacles have you had to overcome and what did you learn?
Obstacles are important because they are learning moments. I was threatened with sexual harassment to get my tenure. When I was competing with a man for the President of a bank, he won. I had to launch my business and fund it out of earnings. I sat at far too many board meetings where I was the token woman. Yet I believe that I have learned a great deal about how to help others become the women they want to be. And those guys are important teammates in the journey, not to stop us but to join us to become a better world, faster and further together.
If you could go back and tell your teenage self one thing, what would it be?
Be who you are, yet see the opportunities all around you and grab ahold and take the trip. You are on a journey and there is no clear or single destination. Do it with those you love for those you love.