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?

Pride

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Libby Anne and Dan Fincke at Patheos have a pretty fantastic series going that stresses engagement and civic thinking. They’re both part of the atheist/skeptical community (as am I), and have been putting out biweekly prompts that ask other bloggers to consider ethical and civic questions of importance.

This week’s prompt is about pride, the value of pride and the nature of pride.

I have a peculiar relationship to pride. I live in Minnesota, and here in the great Midwest, we don’t really do pride. Bragging is anathema. The humble brag rules, and being too proud is definitely considered weird. In general, I have fairly negative feelings towards pride, although I don’t view it as a sin or vice in the same way that I was raised to view it (in a Catholic school). In my mind, pride always has the ring of bragging or being overly self-involved. I realize that this is not the dictionary definition of pride, but it is always how I have considered pride. Being proud of someone else is completely acceptable, but being proud of yourself seems immodest.

I do think that something like positive pride is hugely important, but I would prefer to call it self-respect. This is the personal sense that you have done something well, and feel good about yourself. You can recognize your positives and accomplishments. That is great. That is something we need to cultivate more of, since the culture that I live in is one of “never good enough”. Pride involves showing it to others in my mind. And sometimes that’s ok. Sometimes you want to share, sometimes it’s healthy and wonderful to share. But the important kernel is the internal self-respect that says you acknowledge yourself as good.

In general, I think that some measure of modesty is great. It’s quite easy to put others down by bragging about your own accomplishments, it often makes you look foolish, and recognizing where you can improve is great. I think that modesty is 100% compatible with self-respect, because self-respect is internal, and modesty is about how you broadcast things to the outside world. But as always, there needs to be a balance between these two extremes. Modesty helps you to respect and care about others. It greases social wheels. It makes you more approachable. But self-respect (even sometimes branching into pride) helps you care for yourself by letting you acknowledge and honor the things that you have done, by allowing you to rest at times, and by giving you an emotional reward when you do well.

Sometimes pride does serve a social purpose, like pride in someone else or your group. Generally, I believe being proud of ‘your team’ or ‘your country’ is a little silly, since you have no actual ownership of whatever they have done. Being proud of someone else usually means to me that you respect them for it, that you feel they’ve done well. It’s more of a congratulations than anything else, but on a deep level, a level that says you feel happy to be associated with them. I wish that there was a word for this other than pride, because it seems to have a distinctly different flavor to it than personal pride. Where personal pride is about feeling good about yourself or telling others about what you’ve done, pride for someone else is about recognition of what they have done.

There is also group pride, particularly for marginalized groups. I really can’t speak to racial or ethnic pride, because I am not part of a marginalized racial group, but as a woman and as someone with mental illness I can’t understand feeling pride over those identities. Again, pride to me holds an element of boastfulness. There is nothing to boast about with these things. I cannot understand being proud of anything you have not achieved yourself. I do feel compassion, respect, care, and community for the other people in these groups and for my role in these groups. I feel that for many of these people I’m proud of them for surviving. But I am not proud of my status as a member of these groups, because for me pride is reserved for actions, and it is to be earned. However where an emotion plays a positive role in helping someone to deal with their marginalization, I certainly can’t speak against it. For other marginalized individuals, pride might be very important, and I have absolutely no right to take that away from them.

In general, I wish we had more words for pride, to distinguish the emotions that it contains. There are very valuable elements to pride; recognizing oneself, giving oneself permission to rest or recuperate after an accomplishment, feeling good about oneself, respecting oneself, or recognizing a good thing another person has done. In general, I feel that all of these things can be subsumed under respect, because I don’t see what in addition to respect there is about “positive pride”. The prideful element that seems to be added is the boastful, bragging, or raising yourself over others. I’ve never understood the importance of tooting our own horns. Whenever I see patriotism touted as positive, or ethnic pride, I’m simply left wondering what for? Can’t we illustrate our goodness through our actions instead of obsessively patting ourselves on the back? There’s got to be a way to feel good about yourself without throwing a parade.