Women Need Disruption

Rachel Weisz as Hypatia of Alexandria, in the movie Agora (2009).

In the fall of 2016, while researching for my master’s thesis, I joined a business accelerator at NYU’s Stern School of Business. In the first bootcamp, led by Luke Williams (author of Disrupt), I learned how we can spark innovation by using disruptive hypotheses.

We can change how we think about something if we challenge the current, standard thinking–or cliché–by posing a disruptive hypothesis.

For example, a cliché about restaurants is “Customers eat whereas cooks cook.” A disruptive hypothesis that could spur innovation and give way to a radically new concept of restaurants would be, “What if customers cooked and cooks ate?”

Disruptive innovation materialized in the sock company that sold socks in threes instead of pairs, the software company that put 1,000 songs in your pocket, or the man who walked on the moon.

The efforts done so far in female leadership have fallen short or not produced the desired outcomes, as revealed in the latest McKinsey & Co. and Lean In report about women in the workplace. Because we can’t expect to get different results from the same actions, I propose that we think about female talent development in a disruptively new way.

Below are some clichés about women in the workplace, with what those standard ideas imply.

(Disclosure: the implications that I’ve written here are not what I personally think about women but the thoughts that derive from the clichés themselves.)

Cliché #1 – Feminism is a collective movement.

Implications: The group helps the individual. Power emanates from the group and women will obtain it when one of two things happen:

  1. Those in power (men) decide to share it with women;
  2. There is a critical mass of women in positions of influence and then, they’ll put more women in them.

Disruptive hypothesis #1 – What if feminism were an individual responsibility?

Each woman, individually, takes an active role in her own success and advancement. Each woman, individually, has her share of responsibility for the success of all women. Each woman, individually, contributes to helping her gender advance.

Cliché #2 – Organizations put special measures in place to protect women and help them thrive.

Implications: Women need protection. Women can’t “play the game” without special help. Women are helpless and therefore, the game and the playfield need to adapt to them.

Disruptive hypothesis #2 – What if women took care of themselves and asked for help when they needed it?

Women don’t need protection because they can take care of themselves. They need help to the same extent that everyone else does because no one can thrive on their own.

Cliché #3 – Gender stereotypes reflect the wrong and unfair way in which society sees women.

Implications: Gender stereotypes are wrong and unfair. The society needs to change and every individual has to stop holding gender stereotypes. Every individual who holds gender stereotypes is wrong and unfair and needs to change.

Disruptive hypothesis #3 – What if each woman made sure she behaved all the time in ways that shattered the gender stereotypes held by those around her?

On certain occasions, women show behaviors that help maintain gender stereotypes. It is each woman’s responsibility to be aware of and avoid stereotypical behaviors. Once that happens, gender stereotypes will be useless because they’ll be devoid of any descriptive power.

Cliché #4 – Men need to follow certain rules in the workplace so that women can be their best selves.

Implications: Women need special treatment because they’re less able to get what they want in work environments. If women don’t succeed it’s because of men. Men are bad for women.

Disruptive hypothesis #4 – What if men were not women’s problem?

Each woman is responsible for herself–although everyone needs to act within the law (sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination are unlawful). Each woman needs to speak up when men interrupt, harass, or disrespect her. If some men are sexist and disrespectful, that’s their problem. We can only control the things we do–not what other people do.

Say ‘no’ when you mean ‘no’ and ask for what you want.

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