Posted by: jessmcdonnell | March 28, 2019

Women & Power

When you hear the word power what do you think of? Traditionally the word power means force and control and in the 21st century that is not something many women resonate with. Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take the Lead, wrote an article that we read for class about women’s relationship to power. She notes that women are hesitant to admit to a strong relationship with power out of fear of seeming too pushy. Many women view power as speaking to dominance and some even find it offensive.

Dictionary.com show 32 definitions of the word “power” in addition to the numerous connotations it is bagged with. FORBES approached several “powerful women” including Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, WikiMedia’s Sue Gardner, billionaire Shari Arison and many more to ask how they defined power. Not one of their definitions included using force or control, but instead they viewed power as creating positive change, the ability to influence, and helping others. All of these women were deemed “powerful” by FORBES and agreed they have important and influential roles, but would not admit to being powerful.

             

I found a similar theme when interviewing my woman leader. My interviewee is the Director of Secondary Instruction for a public-school district in Virginia. She has a lot of control over curriculum, instruction, policy, and decisions made when it comes to K-12 education. She defined power as “the ability to initiate change” and considered herself to have a large impact on the direction of teaching and learning in the division yet she had a hard time admitting to being powerful.

In her writing, Fledt believes that women must transform their own relationship with power and redefine power as the power to accomplish their goals. After watching the video of FORBES “powerful women” talk about power and reflecting on your own views of power, what do you think? Does power mean something different to male and female leaders? How do you define power? Does the traditional definition need to change as the world we live in changes?

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Responses

  1. I think power is an interesting topic to discuss in our class, and I loved that you posted about it. It’s interesting to me because I think the power dynamic is changing; in general, I’m seeing more instances of power-with rather than power-over in my everyday life. I’d be interested to know if women lead the charge on this, or if it is just due to gradual change. As a woman, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of power-over. I would be more comfortable surrounding myself with people that I can share power with in order to achieve our goal as a group.

    While interviewing my leader for the paper, she also mentioned how she felt uncomfortable with the idea of power-over. When asked, she struggled to think of a situation where she felt she would need to use that kind of assertiveness. I would be interested to hear about female leaders that prefer to use power-over, just to see a different perspective.

  2. I really liked this post and I think power is an interesting topic especially with women in leadership. I enjoyed the video you posted and I thought it was cool to see how so many of the women defined power as the ability to make change or to make a difference. One woman in particular said that if you have power and you aren’t using it to make a difference or to make something happen then you are using it wrong. I just think that is so inspiring and how everyone should view power.

    I also talked about power with the woman I interviewed and she described herself as having a power-with approach, with I think a lot of women do in their leadership style and I believe that is the more successful approach anyway. She didn’t seem uncomfortable with power but she did say she did not see herself as having power in her position even though she has a lot of influence over people. It is just really interesting to hear different women who have power in their careers describe power and to see how similar many of the descriptions are.

    • I also really liked the part where one woman explained how you are using power wrong if you have it but aren’t making a difference/making something happen. The woman I interviewed described power as “weaving together the tapestry of community.” While this may sound a little cheesy, I think it is a valuable perspective. My interviewee explained that power is all about community, and it is much more effective when power is shared among various individuals instead of one person holding all the power. She said that in the instances where she has had to hold power alone, she feels pressured and nervous because it is difficult to make decisions alone. However, she did say there were times when she had to just make a decision and be okay with it. Thanks for posting this, it was really cool to read about and watch!

  3. It was very refreshing to hear all of these women define power as something to do with either making a change, or the ability to inspire. In today’s world, it seems that the tide is slowly turning towards a more appreciative definition of power – as seen in the FORBES video.
    Over the semester we have learned how men and women tend to have different leadership styles, and conclusively may define power differently. However I would have to disagree – I think just because you have an authoritative leadership style does not necessarily mean you see power as the ability to dominate. You mentioned that in one particular article, women seemed hesitant to admit that they were powerful for fear of seeming too pushy or overbearing. I can see how some people, especially young women, may identify with this fear. This may be because young women are victims of feeling as if they have to be perfect, while the traditional sense of power is arguably not as “stereotypically feminine” as people would like to identify as (I do not necessarily agree with this, but based on the reading about “behind-the-scenes leadership and women in college leadership roles, it seems like this is at least a partially true statement about why women shy away from “power”)
    My favorite thing about the video was in the beginning when a woman said that power is “something that comes from within”. This is a much more intimate stance on power, and simultaneously highlights the power in all girls and women that is often never found. Tying together with another post written this week about how to make plans or agendas for women to become more successful, I believe that the first step is to let every young girl see the power within herself – and to not view it just as strength, but as a strength or ability to have the power to do anything we set our minds to.

  4. This topic of power is very interesting to discuss, because I was very surprised when interviewing my woman leader in a more masculine context. I asked her how she defined power and she immediately grimaced and shook her head. She repeatedly stated how she did not like the word power and was trying to think of a different term she could use. She eventually came up with “influence you have on someone”, which aligns with many of the responses from the women leaders in the Forbes video. Women who do have a great amount of power do not see it as a negative thing, but rather an ability to influence others and make a difference.

    I do not know if women leaders do not want power, or stay away from using the term if they think only men should use power. However, maybe as more women gravitate towards positions of power and take more risks in the workforce, they will be able to produce a positive change on the connotation of this word.

  5. Power was not something that really came up in my interview (at least not explicitly), but I do find it really interesting to talk about in this class in terms of the connotations that go along with the concept, and how the ideas of power are changing. I think that, traditionally, power is usually considered to be more “power-over”, rather than “power-with” or “power-to.” When I think of a powerful man, I think I would picture more of the “power-over” type. When I think of a powerful woman, I think I usually picture some of that as well, but more just someone who is motivated, knows what she wants, and gets things done. So I like that in this video we’re talking about power as the power to accomplish your goals, because I think that goes along with the idea of a powerful woman being able to just get things done. I think that this idea of power is definitely more women-in-leadership friendly, because while women often get penalized for being overbearing (where an overbearing man might be considered powerful), a women can be considered powerful by her ability to get her job done. This encourages women to be motivated and gain power by working hard and being good at their job, which I think is a good thing. I think it will also lead women to help empower and motivate other women as well, so that they can also have the power to achieve their goals.

  6. This topic came up in my interviews for the interview paper. Both of them agreed that women, they specifically, use power differently than men do. Men tend to be more power-over not power-with. They like to be on top of everything and in control. This was showcased in one interaction with a male superior from one of my interviewees. She said that he expected them to bow down to him just because he was male and they were female. Both agreed that power is how you can influence others much like what the original blog post said. As for styles I believe that both need to be incorporated. It is time to move away from the black and white definitions that we have about power today. Sometimes a leader will need to be more “power-over” and sometimes they will need to be more “power-with.” It depends on the situation, not the gender of the leader who is in that situation.

  7. When I think of the word power, my mind immediately goes to the history context. I think of the roman empire expanding, wars over land, or “power-hungry” emperors. I think that in a sense, I identify with women who think power is a bad thing. So I agree that it’s time to adjust the reputation and traditional definition of “power.” I really like the definition of power as “ability to initiate change” because that is honestly what it is. Having power means that you can use your influence to make ideas turn into reality. The only downside of having power, or the ability to initiate change, is that it can be used for good or bad. I think people avoid using the word power because they think it is used in the bad context historically.

  8. This concept is really interesting, especially after discussing the idea of power with the woman I interviewed. She is the Chief of Staff of a major organization and is in an extremely influential position in her company. When asked what leadership is, she answered that it is the ability to influence those around you. I thought this was true, since different types of leadership use different types of power to influence their followers. But when asking her if she sees herself as someone with power, she said no. I was a little confused, but she explained that people’s perception of power has a negative connotation around it. She thought this was silly because she knows that power can be used in a positive manner, but she also had to take into account what her followers thought of the word “power”. At first I wondered if she didn’t view herself as someone with power because women tend to lean away from that label, but once she explained her point of view, I saw that power meant something different to her coworkers than herself. Personally, I believe that everyone has power : the potential to influence others. I think that the idea of men and women having different perceptions of power is really interesting, especially because of the way society has enforced gender roles. Women need to internalize that we do have power and it can be used to not only lead, but also to empower other women around us. Since becoming more comfortable in my own skin, I know that I am a powerful woman and use my confidence to show those I mentor that they are powerful too. Hopefully in the future more women will realize that they do have power within them, changing the way society views women in powerful leadership roles and the perception of power in general.


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