There is little question that traditional gender stereotypes do not typically associate women with “power” in the workplace. Here, we use power to mean the “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”.i Women are often considered the “doers” and “implementers” rather than the visionariesii or those who command action from others. And, with only 19% of C-suite roles held by women,iii this is not surprising. There are few female models for men or women to turn to in order to see the strong compatibility between women and power.
Though norms are shifting, change is slow, and it is not always clear what individuals can do to make progress toward gaining power. We suggest one approach women can take is to actively design and develop their personal power source. By strategically identifying, growing and leveraging their influence, women can not only help themselves rise in their careers but also model and engage in behaviors that scaffold other women to do the same. As such, we propose a framework with which to think about, design and develop your own personal power source.
Cultivate the Right Mindset
The deck is often stacked against women when it comes to seeing themselves as naturally powerful leaders. The characteristics that people often consider strong in leadership are also those typically associated with masculinity (e.g., assertive, independent and dominant). Common gender stereotypesiv characterize femininity, on the other hand, as synonymous with being nurturing, sensitive and gentle, traits not traditionally linked to leadership. As a result of these stereotypes combined with the prevailing gender disparity in leadership roles across major industries, both men and women are less likely to view women as prime candidates for roles with authorityv. Yet in order to establish power, it is necessary for women to overcome these perceptions and internalize their own capacity for power.vi
You may be thinking, “easier said than done.” And, by all means, changing gender associations developed over the course of a lifetime – and, often by extension, one’s gender-based narrative (e.g., “I am not powerful, nor do I want to be”) is not easy. However, it is entirely possible. Indeed, when working with a group of 10 female Managing Directors from one of the major investment banks, we found that 9/10 women had experienced some form of this internal struggle. They had all learned and continued to learn how to embrace their capacity for power.
One important step is to check your assumptions. Examine your definitions, beliefs and feelings about power and consider whether power can and should be yours.
Exercise: Write down the word Power on a piece of paper and circle it. Next, take two minutes to write every word you associate with the word Power around the circle. See what you come up with. Are the words mainly positive? Negative? Are the words you’ve written also words you would associate with yourself? Why or why not? If you find that your definition of power does not overlap with the way you view yourself, it may be time to shift your thinking. Reframe power as something more positive and accessible. For example, power could mean implementing your best ideas or your core purpose through others or driving key results through influence. Consider your assets and strengths, and think about what you currently already have power or control over. Women have been socialized to anticipate backlash and negative feedback when they act in counter-stereotypic waysvii (i.e., when they act in traditionally masculine ways) so know that it’s okay if it feels uncomfortable to associate yourself with power and powerful behaviors – but don’t shy away. This feeling will diminish over time as you acclimate to exerting power.
Clarify Your Purpose for Power
As important as becoming more comfortable with the idea that you can and should hold power (and note that this is an iterative practice) is the question: why do you want power? What are those ideas or results that you envision? What could you achieve – for you, for the causes that are important to you, for others – that greater power would enable in the future? Anchoring in your reason for wanting power (your business or professional purpose) can help energize and motivate you to pursue opportunities to develop your power. By focusing beyond the societal barriers that could hold you back, and looking toward your goals, you can better recognize what you need to do or learn in order to achieve the power you need to meet those goals.viii There is no question that, given the opportunity, women are just as capable of wielding power as are men. So, how will you use it?
We know that organizational politics have a bad reputation, particularly among women. Research suggests that women are more likely than men to see office politics as distasteful and are less comfortable consciously leveraging their relationships to get ahead.ix Advancing the self through relationships can feel inauthentic to some and counter to the idea that it should be what you know, not who know you know, that makes a difference in your career. And, in one study, 81% of women and 61% of men reported that women are judged more harshly than men when they are seen as engaging in corporate politics, so it is no wonder that women often opt to avoid “getting political.”x But if one defines politics as how power is practically maneuvered on a daily basis,xi it is simply a process that can be used for positive outcomes (i.e., in service of goals that are aligned with a purpose, mission or the organization’s strategy) or for negative outcomes. Viewing politics this way, the question becomes how are you using power on a daily basis to advance your goals or purpose? And, viewed through this lens, “getting political” is not optional when it comes to “getting ahead.”
To begin to get into the political game (or, more so, to accept that they’re already in it and to win), we suggest that women need to consciously enhance their political astuteness and actively work to understand the political structure in their organization.xii What this means is, pay attention to people. One client of ours in a Private Equity Portfolio Company in the industrial space lived by the exercise of mapping out one’s organization’s informal relationships,xiii who goes to whom for advice? Who exchanges support during meetings? The fact is that there is no pure meritocracy – power and influence move some people to the forefront – who are these people and who is helping them? Who are they helping in return? In this way, some knowledge is a gateway to power, though not enough in and of itself. Our client, ultimately very successful in her industry, acknowledged and embraced the idea that knowing the ins and outs of your organization’s political structure positions you to mine the gaps, seek out the right influencers at the right times and begin to see how you can build the right support system for your own bottom line.
As you take note of your organization’s political structure, we also suggest that you consider your stakeholders. This is where your personal network comes into play. Informal and formal networks can be invaluable resources when gaging opportunities for advancement, support for promotion or simply letting you know when you need to improve on a presentation. Yet, because people tend toward similar others (which means men tending to network with men), women are often at a disadvantage when it comes to networking. This means they may have to work more deliberately to develop the right network.
When mapping your network, consider your superiors, peers and subordinates in your department, company and beyond. Do you have people to go to who have specialized skills or knowledge? Are you close to people who have broad influence and can build stakeholders’ commitment and buy-in surrounding you and your career? Do you have people in your network who will provide encouragement as well as people who will give you honest and straightforward feedback? It is important to nurture a multi-purpose network, one that includes emotional support but also people who can mentor, sponsor and advocate for you.
If there are gaps in your network, think about why. Are there skills or opportunities you can offer that you are not currently utilizing? Use exchange and reciprocity to consciously build a broader and more strategic network. Remember, networking is just relationship building, but it is key to cultivating your personal power source.
Experiment with Powerful Behaviors
Because behaving inconsistently with how we have learned we should act can feel fraudulent, we often point to feelings of inauthenticity as a reason for staying in our comfort zones.xiv Indeed, many people struggle with feelings of inauthenticity when it comes to stepping into new roles or taking on new challenges. This can be a particular problem as women move up the corporate – or other – ladder and need to behave in increasingly powerful ways.
Take a moment to really consider, however, that just because something feels uncomfortable does not mean you should shy away from it. In fact, we know from psychology that developmental shifts typically involve some disruption and uncertainty, but we have to push through the awkwardness to stabilize at a next level. So we suggest that women behave in ways that exude power and make them feel powerful, even when this does not initially feel natural. Consider it a “fake it until you make it” approach – and you will make it. By practicing powerful behaviors, women can not only get a sense of what these behaviors feel like, but begin to see the difference in how others treat them and what they can accomplish with powerful actions.
Some behaviors we suggest that are pivotal to developing power are:
- Develop breadth and depth in your space – knowledge is power.
- Be a LEARNER – intellectual curiosity and agility predict leadership success regardless of gender.
- Replace subservient language with powerful language (minimizing, apologizing, upward inflection…). You know what you’re talking about, make that clear.
- Enhance your Executive Presence (the lens through which others can more clearly see your competence). Consider the impression you want to make for a strong, positive impact.
- Be respectful and nurture trust to build social capital. Network strategically and honestly.
- Identify and solve problems and produce material results. Be proactive.
- Be strategic and communicate a vision. Women often position themselves as indispensable when it comes to their organizational abilities and stamina, but are more cautious than men when it comes to advocating for unconventional ideas (particularly when the ideas do not have supporting evidence). As such, women are less likely to be seen as “visionaries” or innovative thinkers.xv Step outside this box. Take calculated risks.
- Raise awareness among men who have come to trust you. You already have more influence than you realize.
- Take risks and STRETCH.
- Envision and inspire.
- Take credit when earned. Though women often avoid situations in which they may sound boastful because it can, indeed, trigger backlash, gaining power requires you to sell yourself and get noticed, so find ways to make your impact clear.
Designing and developing your personal power source is no small endeavor. It requires conscientious and proactive work to shape the people around you and your own presence and behaviors. Though difficult to attain, power is ultimately an invaluable tool in advancing in your career, achieving your purpose and having professional and personal impact. It IS within your reach.
If you’re interested in discussing how these issues are at play in your company and how to address them, reach out to Contemporary Leadership Advisors at CMitamura@CLAdvisors.com.
Or if you’re interested in attending a workshop on developing your power source, visit https://www.icl.institute/site/event/womens-leadership.html
Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D. and Beth Gullette, Ph.D.
Contemporary Leadership Advisors
i “power.” Merriam-Webster.com. 2018. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/power
ii Kaiser, R., & Wallace, W. (2014). Changing the narrative on why women aren’t reaching the top, Talent Quarterly, 1, 15-20.
iii Krivkovich, A., Robinson, K, Starikova, I., Valentino, R., & Yee, L. (2016). Women in the workplace. Mckinsey & Company.
iv Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109(3), 573.
v Ibarra, H., Carter, N., & Silva, C. (2010). Why men still get more promotions than women. Harvard Business Review.
vi Ibarra,H., Ely, R., & Kolb, D. (2013) Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review.
vii Rudman, L. A., & Fairchild, K. (2004). Reactions to counterstereotypic behavior: the role of backlash in cultural stereotype
maintenance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 157.
viii Ibarra,H., Ely, R., & Kolb, D. (2013) Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review.
ix Heath, K. (2017). 3 Simple ways for women to rethink office politics and wield more influence at work. Harvard Business Review.
x Heath, K. (2017). 3 Simple ways for women to rethink office politics and wield more influence at work. Harvard Business Review.
xi Flynn, J., Heath, K., & Holt, M.D. (2012). Three ways women can make office politics work for them. Harvard Business Review.
xii Cross, R., & Thomas, R. (2011). A smarter way to network. Harvard business review.
xiii Heath, K. (2017). 3 Simple ways for women to rethink office politics and wield more influence at work. Harvard Business Review.
xiv Ibarra, H., (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review.
xv Kaiser, R., & Wallace, W. (2014). Changing the narrative on why women aren’t reaching the top, Talent Quarterly, 1, 15-20.
|Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D.
Chelsea is a consulting psychologist focused broadly on leadership development and more specifically on diversity and inclusion, team building and the advancement of women leaders. Chelsea completed her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and her B.A. at Vassar College.
|Beth Gullette, Ph.D.
Beth is a Managing Partner at CLA and a consulting psychologist and trusted adviser to executives, boards and investors. Prior to co-founding CLA, Beth was a founding member of AlixPartners’ Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness group, Coaching Practice Leader and Senior Faculty Member at The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), and Senior Director of Learning & Development at Lash Group. Beth holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Clinical Psychology from Duke University.