In 1986, a Wall Street Journal headline promised to explore a then puzzling problem: “The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can’t Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs.”
More than three decades later, that headline still holds relevance. While women have made great strides, they still make up a small percentage of the top management at America’s largest corporations.
But while obstacles remain, there is also evidence that the tide can turn.
“As an anthropologist, I am watching women shatter these myths that have kept them from achieving the leadership needed in our society, today and into the future,” says Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist, founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants, and author of the upcoming book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business.
“It is time for everyone to rethink what women can do and how we should enable them to do it. Our society needs it more than ever as we recover from this pandemic and restore the vitality of our economy and our cultures.”
One obstacle ripe for dismantling is that most corporate cultures are set up with a male leadership approach in mind, Simon says. “Unfortunately, men communicate a myth about women that emphasizes their soft sides, not their decisiveness, strength, and ingenuity,” she says. “Women might lead differently than men, but they can achieve remarkable results.”
The latest statistics on female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies spark hope and disheartenment all at the same time. Women now hold 37 of those jobs, which is a record. But that’s a mere 7.4 percent of the total.
Why aren’t women already further along in breaking down barriers that were talked about decades ago? Simons suggests a few reasons:
- The system often forces talented women to give up before they reach the top. “Regardless of what women achieve, business leadership and society deem them to be less worthy of leadership roles and success,” Simon says. “Women find that the way forward is blocked, and at times they jump off the proverbial ladder rather than continue to fight to get to the top in companies, in government, and in male-dominated cultures.” The good news is that in many cases they launch their own businesses.
- The narrative society tells about women colors reality. Through most of human history, men have controlled societies around the globe, along with the myths and narratives surrounding those societies. But Simon says that organizations from the Women’s Business Collaborative to groups like Women TIES (Women Together Inspiring Entrepreneurial Success) are helping change the culture’s narrative about women.
- More role models are needed. “Momentum in changing the culture is hard to sustain without strong role models, communities of women, and a media that changes the narrative,” Simon says. She does her part in her book by showcasing female role models “who will encourage younger women to push forward into dangerous territory where they can be the talented success stories they want to become.”
Here’s one more thing Simon has noticed when she applies an anthropological lens to the differing leadership approaches of men and women when solving problems. “Men think they climbed the Empire State Building and saved the damsel in distress while saving their clients millions of dollars,” she says. “Women think they mobilized a group of talented people who never let the client fall into distress in the first place.”
Andi Simon, Ph.D., author of the upcoming book Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business, is a corporate anthropologist and founder of Simon Associates Management Consultants. A trained practitioner in Blue Ocean Strategy®, Simon has conducted several hundred workshops and speeches on the topic as well as consulted with a wide range of clients across the globe. She also is the author of the award-winning book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. Simon has a successful podcast, On the Brink with Andi Simon, that has more than 125,000 monthly listeners, and is ranked among the top 20 Futurist podcasts and top 200 business podcasts. In addition, Global Advisory Experts named Simons’ firm the Corporate Anthropology Consultancy Firm of the Year in New York – 2020. She has been on Good Morning, America and Bloomberg, and is widely published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Business Week, Becker’s, and American Banker, among others. She has been a guest blogger for Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Fierce Health.