What is ‘power’?
What does the word ‘power‘ mean to you? Is it something you embrace and actively pursue in your career? Or is it a word you prefer not to use, something that sounds a little aggressive or distasteful? Does it make you feel uncomfortable?
The problem with ‘power’
Welcome to the club. The concept of ‘power’ is still problematic for many high-achieving women. They may be successful, ambitious, highly competent, even confident – but many do not like to engage with the idea of being, or actively seeking to be, ‘powerful’. Why is this?
The problem with mindset
Despite years of feminist advancement in education and the workplace – and the now ubiquitous acceptance that women and men are equal in intellect and competence – women are still underrepresented in positions of power. In 2019, only 29% of senior management positions globally were held by women. There are many significant factors involved in this statistic of course including child-bearing, carrying an unequal burden of family responsibilities, discriminatory working practices and the lack of favourable workplace cultures – but female reticence about seeking power must surely also play a part.
Even if women are aware that they are highly competent, many have a pervasive negative mindset about power. Gender bias and inherent stereotypes mean that society seems hostile to the idea of successful, powerful women. (You only have to witness the disproportionate and frankly horrific levels of abuse that prominent women attract on social media to know that this is all too true). Women know that equality is essential but grow up in a world where power seems to be an impolite, aggressive or unfeminine trait for a woman to possess. Being powerful does not fit the conventional narrative about likeable and acceptable female characteristics and behaviour.
Giving power away
As the writer and activist Alice Walker sagely noted. “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. By resisting the idea of power, women are actually giving it away. How does this work? Think about how a reluctance to appear overly strong and ‘pushy’ causes women to shy away from self-promotion, or to avoid proactively pushing themselves forward for opportunities. By not recognising their own power in these situations, they are handing it to someone else to then recognise and reward their value (or not). Many women use minimising language – weak words and qualifiers – ‘just’ ‘perhaps’ ‘if’. If you ask someone whether they would mind doing something rather than clearly instructing them to do it, you are giving them the power to decide – the power that was initially yours. Similarly, if you unnecessarily apologise for things, or always acquiesce to other’s opinions you are giving away your own opportunity to have influence. How can that possibly benefit you?
What power really is
Forget the word power and all its connotations as you understand them for a moment and consider what we’re really talking about. Being powerful is not some aggressive, unattractive male trait or privilege. In its simplest form – it’s owning who you are, believing in your value and understanding that you have the ability to change things. Resisting the concept means you are willingly relinquishing control of and responsibility for what happens to you. Embracing it means embracing your own agency and directing the course of your life and career.
Step into your power
So, whether you actively resist the idea of power, or feel powerless due to your personal or professional circumstances (I discuss this in regard to BAME achievers and leadership roles in my forthcoming upcoming book on imposter syndrome, Be The First – out in November 2020), I would urge you to reconsider what it really means, and step into the personal power that you do have. Take ownership and concentrate on what you can do to effect change and progress in your career. Imagine how being comfortable with this idea of yourself being powerful could have amazing benefits in terms of your resilience, being able to make mistakes, to take risks and proactively pursue opportunities. You could have influence and facilitate change. Don’t let your preconceptions about ‘the P word’ hold you back from what it can do for you. You DO have the power – use it.
Tune into this week’s podcast to hear more of my thoughts on power. I can help you tap into your personal power through my Having it all coaching programme. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.