Power Up: How Powerful Women Leaders Take Back and Redefine Power

Women are redefining and reclaiming their power in boardrooms and beyond, writes Gloria Feldt. I recently keynoted a conference of 200 of the most powerful women lawyers and judges in the country. Not one of them raised her hand when I asked who rated herself a perfect “10” on a 1-to-10 continuum of feeling comfortable with power—with one being “I don’t like or feel comfortable about power” and 10 being “I love it.”A few hands went up at the other end of the scale, ones or twos. Most women raised their hands in the five-to-seven range. After a few minutes discussing the question, one table of women burst out in laughter. “We agreed we could own up to being nines,” they told the group, “but ten just seemed too pushy.”I wasn’t surprised. I see this bell curve in almost every predominantly female group I encounter.I started studying women’s relationships with power in 2008, when it appeared we might have our first female president (remember?). I wrote an article for Elle magazine about women in politics, assuming it would be an optimistic look at how women were ascending to elective office. How surprised I was to learn, however, that at the rate we were progressing, I calculated it would take another 70 years for women to achieve parity in Congress.Despite much hype about climbing to 20 percent female representation in the U.S. Senate since 2008, women are still gaining in representation at the same snail’s pace I calculated in 2008. So at the rate we are going, now it will be just 62 years till we reach parity. Whoopee!!Then I realized that whether we are talking work, politics, or personal life, the dynamics of power are the same.Women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, 60 percent of college graduates, 47 percent of the workforce, and 51 percent of voters, but only hold 18 percent of the top leadership positions across all sectors.The business case for women in leadership is clear: more women equals greater profits. Yet the 2013 Catalyst Census reports found women’s representation in leadership flatlined again compared to previous years. In 2013, women held 14.6 percent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies and 16.9 percent overall of board seats—which was the eighth year in a row of no appreciable increase.It’s become clear to me that the problem is no longer external barriers and biases holding women back, though those certainly still exist. Women now have the necessary resources and the power to move forward, and the world is crying out for women’s leadership. But:Power unused is power useless.That’s why Amy Litzenberger and I co-founded Take The Lead. To break through the logjam and speed progress toward parity, women must transform our own relationship with power.There are good reasons for women’s ambivalence about embracing power.First, the more I dug into the research, interviewed women across the country, and looked into my own heart and performance as a leader, the more I came to attribute women’s ambivalence not to a lack of ambition as some suggest, but to the way we socialize women, which leads to less intention. Ambition is aspirational—having a goal, hope, or desire. Intention implies assuming you are empowered to achieve your ambition and that you take the responsibility to make it happen. Boys are typically socialized from birth to see the world as their oyster and have no reticence about claiming their power. Girls are typically raised to attune themselves first to the needs of others—to respond rather than assume their own agency—even though today they are simultaneously told they can become anything they want to be.Second, women have been discriminated against; we have been raped; we have had countless bad things happen to us because people have had power over us. These experiences have created so much pain that we know we do not want that oppressive kind of power.And third, women who assume powerful positions by merely adopting male models of power and leadership do not advance the cause of equality. It’s hard to change a culture while you are living in it; it makes it more challenging to see injustices, just as fish can’t see the water they swim in. Plus, changing a culture is risky—changing power structures changes relationships, and women may fear losing relationships they value.For all these reasons, women may shy away from power. However, when we change the way women think about power, they can shift from an oppressive, outdated model of “power-over” to an expansive model of “power-to” that transforms how they lead and how they live. And whenever I suggest we redefine power as the power TO accomplish their goals, women respond, “Yes, I want that kind of power!”Power-TO lets you innovate and make the world a better place for yourself, your family, and your community. Power-TO is possibility. If power-over is oppression, power-TO is leadership. Power-over makes you feel powerless; power-TO lets you feel powerful.As Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”Powerful women leaders needs “power tools,” so I created nine of them just for women in my book No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. My greatest pleasure is conducting workshops and courses where I get to share them with others.These nine immediately useful tools enable women to shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention, to make life better for everyone. At the same time, they help women make themselves and their organizations more successful. They’re a total win!We’re on the right side of history. By changing our relationship with power and redefining it from the oppressive power-over to the expansive power-TO, we can embrace it to lead authentically as women. We can go with intention—in equal partnership with men––toward solutions that allow everyone to thrive with the freedom, peace, and prosperity that we all deserve.(This post has been excerpted from Gloria Feldt’s chapter in the book Leading Women, edited by Dr. Nancy O’Reilly.)