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Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business

Women today are speaking up, stepping out, and breaking through like never before. The bestselling book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business from Fast Company tells the inspiring stories of incredible women who redefined norms by pushing past the obstacles others placed before them.

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The following is an excerpt from Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business published January 5, 2021 from Fast Company Press.

Praise for Rethink

Rethink is a great book that smashes the myths that too often hold women back. Andi Simon not only skillfully shares the stories of women who have successfully created their own ‘blue ocean,’ but inspires and guides you to do the same in your life too. This book is a gift that helps women see, feel, and think about their own lives through a fresh lens. Get ready to be inspired!”
Renée Mauborgne, New York Times bestselling author of Blue Ocean Shift and Blue Ocean Strategy, Professor of INSEAD

”We can do anything we put our minds to, and the stories featured in Andi Simon’s Rethink are proof of this. I recommend this book to any woman looking for role models or inspiration for success. Keep planning, learning, and working towards your goals. Continue being unapologetically ambitious.”
Shellye Archambeau, board director, advisor, and author of Unapologetically Ambitious

How Our Myths and Stories Shape Who We Are

Imagine you were out in the savannah seventy-five thousand years ago. The men have had an arduous day hunting gazelles and remarkably caught one for the camp to cook for dinner. The women have provided the family’s meal, collecting the roots and tubers, fruits, and berries. Game hunting was unpredictable. Without the women’s foraging, the camp might not have ever survived waiting for the guys to catch their game. But on this day the men outran the gazelle and brought it back for their family, clan, or tribe to share.

What does everyone do that evening? Sit around the campfire, sharing the stories about the day’s hunting, where the game was found, how they shot it with their arrows, and how they followed it after it was hit. The more experienced hunters might use the day as a way to educate those younger men. Together they sang songs and spoke about what they had learned and how their skills had improved. The men were always the heroes in their stories, and their journeys were always filled with challenges and failures. The gods might have helped. They may have even thanked the gazelle.

The stories they created and shared may have dramatized their successes while downplaying their difficulties. In the process of telling their stories, they created great myths. In their mythology, the men put into place the way they wanted women, children, the elders, and themselves to see their world and to live in it. They often tied their human lives with those of the gods, the animals, and the earth. It was one world, in a sense, and their myths and stories helped them understand and protect themselves from the vagaries of life.

The power of humans comes from their ability to create and share stories. You might wonder how stories could be so important on so many different levels. Our evolution has been a coevolution—part genetics and part culture, both leading to natural selection. In Joseph Henrich’s book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, he builds the case for how we have evolved. He states that it has been more than just genetic evolution. Rather, our ability to talk, create a culture and the stories that made it come alive, and share myths that helped keep people together were intrinsic part of our evolution.

Humans have evolved into who we are today in great part because of our time around the campfire sharing stories. Of course, technological innovations, from fire to software, have spurred our transformation. But the most important part of our development was our ability to be great storytellers. That’s what makes us human. Unlike other primates, we live in the fictional worlds we create through our ability to imagine realities and make them our own. Humans are herd animals, and we like to be with others like ourselves. And we share our stories to affirm our place in that society.

Equally important is how storytelling enabled us to develop the skills needed to adapt to particular environments. Unlike other creatures that diversified to fit their environments, we remain one species that evolved by using our ability to create, share, and continue to improve upon our cultural and physical tools as well as our collaborative methods for problem-solving.

That is why there is such power in the stories we create and the way we share them. Further, people tell stories that tend to follow a hero who has a challenge to conquer and the journey that has taken him—or her—on their way with metaphorical dragons to conquer, travails to overcome, and somehow a way to overcome the hurdles and rise again, triumphant.

I think you will hear the same heroic stories captured in those shared by the women in this book. As you read about them in the chapters ahead, listen closely to how each one found her mentor or guide and managed to overcome obstacles to finally emerge the hero of her own story.

Why Is an Anthropologist Writing about Businesswomen?

Anthropology captured my imagination and my interests when, as an undergraduate, I discovered the cultural differences in how people created, shared, manipulated, and truly believed their myths and stories about who they were, where they came from, and why they did things. This mythology became an important part of their realities. Their stories captured the very essence of their culture. They were less important as truths than as the way people made sense of their truths.

Years later, I had a career all set out. It was my own personal story. I had my PhD. I was a tenured assistant professor and a published author, and I was running a master lecture series while producing a TV series for CBS on change in America.

It was around that time that I was introduced to a group of Citibankers at a cocktail party with my husband, who was an executive there. They invited me to help them change. And in that instant my future was serendipitously transformed. I spent the next fifteen years in banking and then another seven in healthcare as an executive, helping these organizations change.

Like the companies, I also had to change. I had to change my clothes and put on a suit to fit in. I had to put my PhD in my back pocket. I was now a senior vice president or an executive vice president in a bank, not an anthropologist. I was sitting at meetings with all the men and realizing how I would have to change how I spoke, led, and got things done. Occasionally, I wandered around the house in the middle of the night trying to figure out who I was and what I was really doing.

What I quickly learned was how to play in a new game, if I was going to play to win. I had to learn the mythology. I had to adapt my voice, my storytelling, my conversations with bosses, subordinates, customers, and even my friends to become a different player on a new stage. This anthropologist quickly became a successful businesswoman, a leader doing what others did not know or want to do: change.

The times were changing. Deregulation was changing banking. Managed care was changing healthcare. The prior leaders were good at what always had been the accepted ways of doing things. And they were looking at me to help them change. I made it up to an executive vice president of First National Bank of Highland, a division of M&T Bank, only to discover that glass ceiling. I would go to board meetings with forty-nine men and me. I learned then what it was to be stereotyped into roles that were being created by men for men— and I could either play the role or find another place to play.

The Purpose of Myths

Out of this experience, I became fascinated by the power of myths and stories to keep us in our place in our societies. So many cultures have had essentially the same mythologies. They had different ways of telling those stories, but with recurring themes, all designed to explain the common challenges of human lives. Those myths weren’t simply entertainment, Star Trek–style. Instead, they had tremendous power to organize, stabilize, and control people. Myths and cultural traditions are created and sustained over time because they help people make sense out of their experiences, relationships, and those unknowns that seem to challenge personal survival in a world of uncertainties. As humans evolved, myths, cultural rituals, and shared stories essentially explained a phenomenon so people could understand why they did something or why something should be done.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces captures how mythology is the underlying foundation in every civilization and underpins each individual’s personal consciousness. His discussion of the “monomyth” shows how, regardless of time or place, humans created myths with similar themes, characters, purpose, and format. In ancient times, the myth provided the listener with a truth that could then be interpreted, shared, and modified to fit the group and their own culture. Understanding their realities was up to them, not someone insisting on a certainty that only an authority figure (king, priest, noble) would control.

As Campbell writes: “The psyche, as a reflection of the world and man, is a thing of such infinite complexity that it can be observed and studied from a great many sides. It faces us with the same problem that the world does: because a systematic study of the world is beyond our powers, we have to content ourselves with mere rules of thumb and with aspects that particularly interest us. Everyone makes for himself his own segment of the world and constructs his own private system, often with air-tight compartments, so that after a time it seems to him that he has grasped the meaning and structure of the whole. But the finite will never be able to grasp the infinite.”

If our myths become essential for our perceptions of reality but are illusions, not truths, how do we change them when they are no longer working as they might have in the past? To understand this query, we must reflect on what we have learned about how our brains create our realities. The brain takes data or facts and turns them into stories that then become our realities. Those stories are powerful. Once created, our brain sees only what conforms to that story. Changing the story is hard work. You literally have to start seeing things through a new, fresh lens.

“Research is showing that stories physically change the way the brain is working, and when you’re in this changed state, then it’s possible to change your life experiences,” says Paul J. Zak, PhD, the neuroeconomist whose organization, ZESTx Labs, studies how and why stories engage us and change our brains, usually for the better. Further, neuroscience research is showing us how the brain takes information and uses stories to make sense out of it, regardless of where the person is located or the language in which they are reading the story.

These stories influence how we see our worlds and evaluate what people are doing in them. New data that does not fit our storyline is ignored or deleted, as our brain hijacks new information that doesn’t fit what we believe to be true. In other words, we can only see what we believe, and we only believe what we can see.

Breaking Free from the Myths That Control Us

Our myths lend power to the person over the challenges that surround them. Myths explain, empower, stabilize, and elevate meaning in the life of a believer. They put daily life into a broader context and enable society to establish controls and order among disparate people within and beyond the family, the clan, and the tribe, who may not share common personal experiences or goals but who are all living in a similar world. These are fictions, but they play important roles in real lives.

When it comes to the place of women in all societies, evolutionary psychologists argue that humans evolved over millennia by forming an adaptive reality in which they created mythologies and cultural norms that separated men and women. Society placed women in the home, typically securing their roles there as mother, housekeeper, weaver, and keeper of the daily order. Men went to hunt the game, farm the fields, fight the wars, and trade the goods. The mythology served multiple purposes, both establishing the proper roles for people but also enabling the human brains to evolve with the right scripts and roles passing from one generation to the next, adapting along the way but securing society through these cultural truths. The myths could be shared, and in the process of telling each other about them, people ensured that others embraced the norms and followed them.

The evolutionary psychologists’ arguments emerged in the mid-1990s when they began to look at gender through a Darwinian lens. Gender differences, they argued, have evolved through sexual selection to the point that they have become the way we are, locked into our genes. David Geary, PhD, posed the foundation of his argument around the different purposes that men and women have in our society. Men are to spread their genes by impregnating as many women as they can, investing their reproductive energies in having offspring. And women are bound by their roles in having those offspring and raising them. Women want a man who is focused on them and on caring for their children. These roles explain how this thinking has led to the cultural values of all societies, with women pushed into the home and men able to have multiple mates and increase their reproductive value for human evolution.

While we might think of men having children with many women today as undesirable, even evil, the Masai in Tanzania or Kenya have ten wives as a symbol of their prestige and power, and with those wives, many children. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that biological evolution has made men and women significantly different in how they select a mate, what they expect each other to do, and where they see themselves and others on a competitive playing field. As they suggest from their research, “Men will continue to be philandering, non-nurturing and sex-focused, and women will continue to be mothering keepers-of-the-hearth.”

Research on how girls and boys play tends to support their arguments. For example, in Vivian Paley’s work Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner, she sets forth her experiments to better understand the psychology of gender. As a teacher, Paley wanted to understand how to make boys behave. In her classrooms, boys were always the agents of chaos. They took over the “block corner” and built forts, battleships, and other engines of war and then went into recurring battle with all the loud sounds associated with men at war. And they loved it.

Whereas the girls kept to the dolls corner, where they and their dolls were dressed up, and they took care of the dolls as if they were their babies. Their conversations were about fictional boyfriends, and they tried to engage one of the boys to become their prince or daddy. More often, they were the “victims” that the boys needed when they were playing pirates or other bad guys. Paley was troubled by the stereotypes that were being lived out in her classroom, year after year, as she taught school.

Paley wrote about how storytelling and fantasy play had an amazing impact on children’s academic and social development as they made sense of their worlds, adapted to their classrooms, learned how to communicate with peers and the opposite sex, and got things done together. Most important for our work, she tried hard to get the girls to play with the blocks and not simply turn them over to another kitchen in which to cook, and to get the boys to use the girls’ area to learn how to be nurturing. Unfortunately, it never worked. They seemed hardwired to be who they were—strong, tough guys and sweet, adoring girls.

The evolutionary psychologists and the educators were all coming to a conclusion that girls will be girls and boys will be boys, regardless of how hard society tries to balance opportunities for women or redirect the attitudes of men. Their research made us worried that change was impossible. If women have become who they are through evolutionary changes and the way in which cultures defined what women could do, could they break out of their destiny and change their cultures? Was there perhaps another way?

One more side to this research is those who claim our gender roles have much more variation, and that variation comes from our learned culture. Society, they say—and not our genes—determines how we react to our biology.

What becomes particularly testy is that the researchers and their findings seemingly match their own gender, with men advocating evolutionary causation and women defending cultural determinism and its potential for transformation. They argue that the men, who hold high-status positions, are promoting theories that maintain the patriarchal status quo whereas women, some of them self-described feminists, see a science that allows for more change.

If there is a genetic basis for what men and women are supposed to do, can women challenge the environmental psychologists and push past their affection for dolls in order to bust open those myths? As an anthropologist, I have to wonder if there is another way to think about men, women, boys, and girls and how we have gotten to where we are today.

In his book The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich states that culture has made us who we are today but can also change what we are becoming for the future. Cultural learning, such as in storytelling, reaches directly into our brains and changes them. These neurological functions are part of how we have been able to become ecologically dominant over other species. Our unique evolutionary advantage, according to environmental psychologists, is not just our ability to process information with “improvisational intelligence.” Neither are our brains full of genetically endowed cognitive abilities so that we can solve problems every day, finding the right solutions so we can survive. Nor is our advantage due solely to a third theory that focuses on our sociability and how we cooperate with others.

Instead, Henrich has set forth the research that integrates these theories into one that understands the intersection of nature, nurture, biological evolution, and culture. He states that cultural evolution gave us the information and the ability to discern complex adaptive behaviors that changed over time, and these behaviors can continue to adapt as we respond to new environmental situations. The power of our culture has made us what we are today. And the plasticity of that culture can help us adapt for the future. It has happened before, and it will again.

So if our culture has a certain plasticity, how do we redefine the role of women in our society and change the mythology? If over our history our brains changed to create stories and myths about what women are and how they are supposed to perform in our societies, seemingly those myths can change again. In the chapters ahead, I will introduce you to ten women who will show you how they are rethinking the cultural myths in their respective fields and how they are smashing these myths to break through and challenge our culture and their roles in it. And I will share with you my own story.

From the Observation Deck

As humans, we live our myths in our daily lives. These myths are stories that become our realities. These stories are passed down from one mother to their daughters and sons, from one schoolteacher to their students, from one friend to another, and from one boss to their employees. Men and women don’t even reflect on whether these myths are true. They simply become what is real.

In turn, we create our stories from them. These stories become our perceptions of reality, guiding our lives with others. We share them, as we have always done over time. Myths help societies sustain their core values and build their belief systems, helping to control people and their behaviors so they can live together. For humans, myths have immense importance with a larger social purpose.

If you believe something to be true, challenges to those truths are easily discarded, even when you know something is wrong with the myth and how it reflects your own reality. As I worked through the stories these women were sharing, I realized they were challenging—indeed “smashing”—those myths and soaring way above what people had always thought was impossible. Those women who were breaking through the barriers were doing so in creative ways and setting new rules for the games they were playing. It was worthwhile to pause and, in an anthropological way, take a fresh look at what they were doing. During our conversations, I marveled at how their stories were becoming realities and how their new successes could begin to change what others believed to be truths.

The stories in this book, while inspiring on an individual level, also tell us about what is happening beyond the lives of these unique individuals. The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson reminds us that we are all storytellers. Our stories reflect our shifting lives. Through our stories we make sense of those twists and turns. They allow us to make meaningful, organized, coherent lives. They also show us something important about what is emerging in our society and transforming our culture.

Many of the women I interviewed spoke about how they were raised and what they were taught or able to do as they were growing up. They come from quite different backgrounds, but the recurring theme is that they were raised in good homes with hardworking parents who wanted them to get a good education.

These women knew no limits and feared the few that were there. Each of the women I interviewed, and many more whom I met and spoke with, could see the possibilities to become who they are today. They simply needed a way to do it so they could fulfill their own personal
promise to themselves.

All of these stories are going to show you how each woman was able to find her way and escape from the socially accepted norms while keeping her personal identity, professional strength, and desire to achieve something that truly mattered to her and to others.

These women chose to share their stories because their experiences mattered to them and shaped who they are today. Their stories can also become the new standards by which we set the norms for our culture and our society. Rather than believing that women can’t or don’t or shouldn’t, it is time to believe that women can and should and will. Social propriety based on gender is dated and in need of reshaping. The social programming out there is strong and pervasive, and the time is ripe to get out the new message.

Stories that become myths and embrace the new truths are powerful. Once we believe that something is the way it is, we share it with others and look upon outsiders as strangers or deviants. Women need to come together in groups that share similar values, beliefs, and ways of doing things so they can mimic each other, bond, and share their stories. They need a community with a shared culture. With access to such a community and culture, they can receive the support and encouragement they need to rewrite their own stories and create new truths.

The women in this book have created a shared community for you to reference and emulate. It is my hope that you will enjoy the stories and that you will begin to create some of your own as you reach out to join or create your own communities of support. In the chapters ahead, you will see that becoming the heroine you’ve always aspired to be is possible, and these stories will show you the way. If you happen to find yourself wanting to say thank you to the storytellers in this book, send me a note at [email protected], and I’ll be sure to pass it along.

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