Overt and Covert Power

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?

Work Redux: Power and Women

This morning I attended Pollen’s Work Redux: Power event. It featured some great conversations about women, power, the workplace, hierarchy, community, and what we can do to change the conversation. Like many of these events, I left with more questions than I came in with, but there were also a number of topics that were deeply relevant and didn’t get discussed. So for the next few days I’m going to be posting about elements of the conversation on women and power that seem to be deeply relevant but may get left out more often than not.

The first thing I want to touch on has to do with one of the questions that was asked of the stellar panel that presented. The question was as follows:

“All of the women on the panel are here because they’ve stood up and stood out in some way. How do you deal with blowback from women and/or the community who instead of supporting you, prefer to toe the line and maintain the status quo? How do you create a circle of support to nourish your ideas?”

The answers to this question were insightful, but took the two pieces of the question as separate. When I heard it, I interpreted them as connected: can we create a circle of support that includes those who prefer to maintain the status quo? Is there a way to support and welcome those who may not want your support, or who would rather see you and your ideas go away?

On a related note, one of the presenters mentioned that one of the best ways women can support each other is by pushing each other to do our best, not simply by providing comfort and kind words. A challenge in the sure knowledge that someone will rise up to it may be the best support you can offer another woman. Part of creating a community is asking others to step up and be their best selves, part of which involves having the wherewithal to see what their best selves could be.

These two pieces fit together. While part of dealing with the blowback may simply be stepping up and doing your best work, ignoring the haters, acting professional, and getting the job done, part of it also needs to be challenging haters to be better selves. For the most part, the conversation aimed towards positive actions that individuals can take to move past the difficult people who might want to tell them to go back to the kitchen (or other similarly negative things). It didn’t mention things like responding to negativity or calling someone out when they do something inappropriate.

There are many bad ways to respond to someone who is being negative, and often calling them out can appear to be petty. But when someone says something inappropriate in the workplace, tries to tell you that you shouldn’t use your power, tells you you don’t deserve your position, or in some other way attempts to take your power away from you, calling them out is an entirely appropriate response. Not only that, but calling them out may be an invitation for them to join you in your community if it is done in the appropriate way. It is asking them to be better.

When someone makes a sexist or racist comment in the workplace, it’s important to say “that’s inappropriate” or even “please don’t speak that way around me” if you don’t feel comfortable making a larger statement. Especially if the person speaking to you is from your own community and is tearing you down, ask them why they think the way they do, or whether they think they’re helping or harming themselves with their words. Challenge them. You’d be surprised at how often people know that what they just said was an unhelpful and damaging thing, they just need someone to remind them.

For those people who don’t understand why their behavior is inappropriate, or who may genuinely feel that a woman in power or a person of color in power is unacceptable, it’s important that they hear the opposing voice. There is power in speaking.¬†There is power in simply saying “no”, even if you are not heard. And it’s always possible that you might start a change deep in someone’s mind. You might show them that they can embrace their own power. You might give them support simply by showing them you at your own best. When someone looks at you and says “you can’t be at this table,” and you say “That’s not something you get to say. Yes I can” and proceed to pull up a chair, you have shown them that you are willing to be present and you are modelling what they could be doing.

I suspect that many of the women who fight back against other women in power are afraid. Why be afraid of someone else’s power if you are secure in your own? That makes it even more important to welcome them into the circles of support that we try to build for ourselves. While it’s good to have like-minded people, it’s also good to keep the door open in some spaces for people who just don’t know. Make it known that you’re someone who is a mentor and who is willing to be a shoulder to cry on. Start a dialogue in your workplace, formal or informal, about what you see as sexism or racism in the workplace. Invite everyone and make it clear that all opinions are valued. Listen. Ask questions. Hear what is scaring someone or intimidating them or holding them back.

The women who fight us tooth and nail on our accomplishments¬†are still women. They are still experiencing all the same difficulties that the rest of us are. And it’s up to us to provide community, support, and power to all women, not just the ones we like. While it’s hugely important to think about our own networks and support, we should also be aware of what we are doing to create more opportunities and support for every woman out there. Perhaps the best way to respond to backlash is to kill them with kindness.