“Power is neither male nor female.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I’ve been a “feminist” since the early 70s (back when it wasn’t a dirty word or something many mainstream women backed away from endorsing out of fear they’d be cast as some power mad, man-hating, dare I say “bitch”). Despite this one constant in my life however, I admit to engaging in a decades-long struggle with my own authentic power.
By authentic power, I mean the kind of power that is expanding and inclusive; the kind that enables us to stand up for ourselves and what we want in a way that isn’t hostile, inflammatory or aggressive. The truth is, many women – even those women executives in high-level positions who are used to being in leadership positions – aren’t in touch with their real power. We shy away from it. Try to deny it. It feels uncomfortable, like an itchy sweater that’s too tight around the middle.
You Lead, I’ll Follow?
Power has a masculine energy. At least that’s what we’ve been conditioned to believe. As such, male executives seem to have a lot more comfort around the notion of power, whereas women executives pull away from even the word itself. In reality, though, authentic power is a neutral energy – it’s not masculine or feminine. Authentic power isn’t physical – it’s not about exerting pressure or force. It’s more about opening up and being comfortable with the full force of who you are: your talents, your skills, your intelligence, and your uniqueness.
Kathryn Kolbert, Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College concurs and writes: “Part of the problem stems from the fact that many women are uncomfortable with power…In some cases women handle…[it] differently than many of their male colleagues. When it comes to power, many men come at their work believing they are equipped to handle power. So they are more likely to volunteer for tough assignments and leadership roles. Many women have a more ambivalent relationship to power and often wait to be asked, whether for a move into a top job or, in the public sphere, to make a run for office.”
All this discomfort with what authentic power really means, coupled with the vestiges of discrimination and the responsibility for child and family caretaking historically being the purview of women, makes it difficult for women executives to climb to leadership positions in both the private and public sector.
Who’s Wearing the Pants in this Relationship Anyway?
In addition, we have to contend with the whole issue of what a powerful leader really looks and acts like. Thankfully, women executives have moved past the “men in skirts” era, when the answer seemed to be imitating the traits of male leaders. In her article, Power, Ambition, Money, Failure: Confronting Career Taboos, Kolbert contends that: “Today, research into leadership is moving beyond the traditional masculine-hierarchical models. Scholars are now exploring the possibility that many women (and some men) have different leadership styles, from a more democratic approach to greater optimism, and a focus on empowering followers rather than commanding them. And scholars in numerous fields are beginning to demonstrate how biases in documenting women’s potential for leadership hinder the advancement of women as well as the organizations that might benefit from women’s contributions.”
As business women, when we are comfortable in our own power we are able to acknowledge our goals; we’re able to take ownership of our desire for financial success; our drive and ambition, and even – especially – our failures. I don’t believe we’re there yet. But we should be. And the only way to get there is to be honest about our discomfort and start communicating with each other about ways to honor our unique and powerful gifts.