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?

Work Redux: Power and Women

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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.

BDSM: A Feminist Pursuit, But Not Taken Lightly

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So there’s a lovely little post up at The Pervocracy about BDSM and feminism and how you can do both at the same time, which I a.want to promote and b.want to add to. Now I am going to add the caveat that I do not personally practice BDSM and so if I get things wrong I am HIGHLY sorry and I don’t want to be stepping on any toes for talking about things that I don’t know about. Anywho, I think this post got a lot of things right. I think it’s right that feminism shouldn’t want to “save women from themselves”, I think it’s right that in general the BDSM community pays a lot more attention to consent and safety than other people who have sex, I think that feminism has no place telling women what makes them feel good, and I think that BDSM is a whole lot more complicated than “submissive female, dominant male”. So back off people who are all anti-BDSM.

Now that being said I have worries about all kinds of sex as a feminist and that extends to BDSM. Again, I think everyone has the right to pursue whatever kind of sex they want as long as it’s consensual and doesn’t harm anyone (more than they want to be harmed). But in situations of BDSM where there is a submissive women and a dominant man, I worry that it confirms certain scripts that are all too common in our communities. While it’s true that that might be your personal kink and it might make you feel strong and powerful, we all have to be aware of the fact that our desires are shaped by the community that we come from. I often have the desire to just roll over like a rug and let people walk all over me in my relationships. That’s certainly societally conditioned. It’s not good for me, and the more I do it, the more I confirm that that’s what women do: I set a bad example for any women around me.

This is not to say that I should feel guilty for these urges. It is not to say that there’s something wrong with me for wanting to be submissive sometimes. And it’s not to say that I might not naturally be a quiet person (hint: I’m really really not). What it DOES mean is that I should be aware of the times when I want to act out the script that’s been given to me and consciously choose whether I want to follow it or not.

I think that in many ways these same considerations apply to BDSM scenes. Even if we are acting out violence towards women in a fully consensual way that makes a woman feel powerful, it is still repeating the same script of violence against women. And that has the potential to be far more dangerous than we may expect it to be. Even if our intentions in acting a certain way are to please ourselves, to make ourselves feel powerful or connected to another human being, we should also be aware that what we’re doing is part of a context: the context in which violence against women is normalized and we are continuing to create that image.

Now BDSM is slightly different from my desire to let my partner make all the decisions in my life because it is in fact a role-play, and because it is usually very private. For these reasons, I think that it may not in fact be as worrisome as some other examples of unexamined desire. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely unproblematic. I think that when people choose to engage in BDSM, they should be aware of the potential for their actions to be misinterpreted as upholding the status quo, they should be ready to vehemently argue against that (as the article cited above did), and they should be ready to act very differently in their lives when they are not roleplaying.

I’m really not entirely sure how we can follow what we desire and want while still criticizing the status quo. If I desperately want to be a housewife, should I give up that dream because it gives a certain impression of women? Probably not, but I should be aware that my choice might have been shaped by other pressures, and talk about it with my daughters/sisters/friends/women around me. How do you think we should deal with it when what we want may not be entirely up to us? I think that again we might find ourselves caught between our responsibility to follow our own desires and do what makes us feel good, and our responsibility to act in a way that promotes the well-being of others. Our desires don’t exist in a vacuum, so how do we follow them while also challenging the things that might have shaped our desires?

Why do I write?

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So now that I’ve established myself as an awesomesauce blogger after 2 whole weeks (or less? I don’t remember) of writing on this blog, I feel that I’m fully qualified to tackle a metapost about writing. Because I’m a Serious Writer who knows all about Writing. (sarcasm. all the sarcasm). But I do like to write about things that I care about, and oddly enough writing is something I care about. So I’m going to give you all a bit of a run down on ME (because I like to talk about me and I’m a little loopy right now so you get a slightly loopy blog post). (I’m doing a lot of passive aggressive apologizing for my topic. Sorry about that guys. This is what I want to write about! It’s my blog! I’m owning that now!)

Ok. So now that I’ve got all of that out of the way and have properly decided to tackle this topic, I think it’s important for writers to be open about their motivations, especially when they’re writing regularly and not for money and for a cause. I write for LOTS of reasons. I write because my brain is an insane blabbermouth that shuts up about as often as Rush Limbaugh. I can’t keep it all in, and I can’t organize it as easily inside the head as outside the head. That’s why I started writing. I’ve always loved it, I’ve always loved the creativity of it, I’ve always loved letting my brain run wild and letting words come out. I started writing for this reason more and more as I started struggling with mental health, and that’s when I started doing poetry and journals and personal blogs.

I’ve also started to write because I have things to say. There are a lot of things I care about. I mean a LOT. I have opinions and passionate feelings about almost EVERYTHING. I think my opinions are important (because hey, they’re my opinions, so of course I think I”m right). I also think that I bring a somewhat unique perspective to a lot of these issues in that I’m an atheist who is very pro-science but doesn’t DO science, has a religion degree, went to a Catholic school, and far prefers philosophy and the humanities as well as social justice causes. I think that I’m more temperate on a lot of things than most atheists and a lot more firebrandy on a lot of things than everyone else. I think the things I care about affect others and so I think they should be discussed. I think the more people read and write and explore the healthier a society will be, and I want to contribute to that healthiness. This type of writing primarily started for me in college with teenskepchick and some for College Feminists Connect. It has fueled a LOT of my blogging and been my main focus in blogging for the last few years. It’s been a big part of how I’ve developed my voice: I like to have a point or an argument to what I’m writing.

At skeptech this last weekend, JT Eberhard said that you shouldn’t be writing to get pageviews, and that if you are, you should just stop now. Well I have a horrible confession to make: I write for pageviews. I check my stats almost every day. I eagerly await the statistics from teenskepchick. And you know why? Because I HAVE places where I write for myself. I have MANY places where I write for myself. I have other blogs that I don’t share nearly as often. I have my journal. I have the beginnings of a book that I’m working on. I check these blogs because these blogs are not just about me, they are about a movement and a message. I CARE about how many people read what I’m saying because a.I want to know if I can get any feedback and if I’m talking about important things in a good way and b.because I think what I have to say is important. PLUS I want some recognition for all the hard work I put in here. Wanting some attention and recognition is a completely human and normal and good thing. I don’t often get to display the way my mind works for others, and I want some recognition that it’s ok and good.

I also write in a similar way to how I use crafts (which I talked about in a post yesterday). It is to create a self-identity and to assert myself into the world. Writing in my mind is one of the freest activities we can undertake. It allows us to express ourselves, to put ourselves forward, to ask for attention and to give ourselves attention. It allows us to shape and create ideas, one of the most powerful things we can do in this world. And it allows us to potentially influence others with our ideas and thoughts. It allows us to have some control over our world because we get to figure out how to understand it, how to shape it, how to work to influence it.  Words are one of the few things we can create entirely through our own power. That’s so cool to me.

So in many ways, I write to check my sanity, to see if what I’m thinking and feeling seems reasonable to others. I write to start those kinds of discussions. I write to explore elements of what I’m passionate about to see what others are thinking or feeling about those same things.

And finally, and most vainly, I write because I actually think I’m fairly good at it. This is big for me. I don’t have a whole helluva lot of self-confidence. In fact I think I suck at most things. But I’m finally beginning to become convinced that I might have some talent at writing. It might be where I’m at home, where I can be myself and still contribute something. It might be a place where I’d feel I have some authority and knowledge, where I don’t feel I have to bow to other’s opinions and feelings. This might be where I can stand up and assert myself, where I LET myself have opinions and express those opinions (something I often don’t do in my personal life). I write sometimes so that people will tell me I’m good at writing. And ya know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Because I need some positive reinforcement in my life right now. Doing something I’m good at and being recognized for it is taking care of my mental health. So fuck the haters who say you can’t write to get appreciation. Of COURSE I write for myself, but part of that is writing for others.

So this blog is an amalgamation of all of those bits. It’s a little bit of passion, a little bit of hobby, a little bit of social justice, a little bit of my brain sorting itself out, and a little bit of vanity. What about you all? Why are you here? Why do you read my blog? What do you want to see more of? Would you be interested in reading my creative writing (oof it’s been a while since I’ve done that, I could use some practice)? Do you buy the idea that writing has power even when no one else necessarily read its?

PS-the featured picture is not me, in case you were curious. It is however approximately how I look while I’m writing.