Overt and Covert Power

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This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.

It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.

And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.

Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.

So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.

Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.

I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?

I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.

Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?

There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?

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