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Publication: Women and The Power Problem

by Anne Litwin and Mary Lou Michael
Published in CenterPoint Newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 1, Fall 2001


Do you feel powerful? Many women find it difficult to use power, to feel powerful, or to be perceived as powerful by others.

In our ten years of coaching women and men in a week-long societal simulation—the Power and Leadership Conference (PLC), created by Barry Oshry and sponsored by Power and Systems, Inc.—and in more than twenty years working with organizations, we have noticed patterns of behavior that we believe are different for women and men.

In this article, we explore women’s relationship with power—defined as the ability to make things happen—explicating the typical challenges, the common responses, and the significant breakthroughs that can then shift a woman’s ability to own and use her power.

Feminist research (e.g. Miller, Gilligan, Schaef) has pointed out the extent to which women are socialized to focus on relationship. While men are taught to value independence and find their identity through work, the web of relationship is a fundamental source of identity, empowerment, and psychological health for women. It is through relationship that we learn who we are and receive validation. Thus women, fearing separation and isolation more than men, choose to maintain relationship at a cost to them.

We see the impact of this socialization for women time and again. We have heard women say they feel invisible in the systems they are in, or that they cannot find their voice. In their desire for relationship, they describe feeling concerned about the needs and approval of others to the extent that they feel lost or cannot take a risk. They perceive that the cost of being center stage, being promoted, or in any way standing out is alienation. They fear isolation to the extent that they cannot take a stand.

While we have heard men express some of the same experiences described above, we find these more often expressed by women. While there are some differences between women of color and white women, we have found more similarities and will focus on the similarities here.

We realize that socialization is manifested somewhat differently when women are also impacted by system dynamics. We will use Barry Oshry’s system-dynamics framework to explore this intersection of gender and system dynamics in the stories of three women participants in the PLC, diverse by age, race, and position in the simulation.

THE TOP POSITION

Cheryl was an “Elite” who occupied a top-level position in the constructed social system. Susan was a “Middle” taking on a manager role. Lucy was an “immigrant” functioning as a worker in the society. Their stories demonstrate how gender and system dynamics together shaped the challenges they faced.

We will then describe the breakthroughs we witnessed. We close the article by identifying patterns that may be helpful to women as they consider their relationship with power.

Women in the top-level positions find their desire for connection in conflict with system dynamics. Tops often feel unsupported and caught in struggles with each other for influence and control.

Cheryl was interested in increasing her personal influence in her organization, a government agency in which she played a key administrative role. She was valued for her calm, fair approach and effective facilitation.

She had difficulty taking a stand with her boss, and generally felt invisible when dealing with people in higher power positions. In the PLC, Cheryl was responsible for the justice system, a role that demanded visibility and claiming power.

Cheryl dealt with her peers by appeasing and facilitating and with the rest of society by being accessible and responsive. Her body language (soft, questioning voice, frequent smiles and nervous laughter, halting speech, slumping posture) sent a message that undermined her authority. “It seems that there’s been a violation of the law. We may need to take some action. What do you think? I wonder if you might be willing to help me, when you have a minute…”.

Cheryl, as a top leader, struggled with how to enact her values of fairness, caring and collaboration without being enslaved by them, how to take independent action without fear of alienating her peers.

The breakthrough came when Cheryl discovered a belief in the institution she represented, and it became for her a passion and a calling. In caring about something bigger than herself and more important than other individuals, she stopped worrying about relationships and lost her self-consciousness.

Cheryl continued to be tested but now she engaged willingly, with new-found confidence and even feistiness that was conveyed in her language, voice and posture.

THE MIDDLE POSITION

For women in middle positions, being in relationship and being of service combine in a unique and often disempowering way.

Susan works for a high tech company as a human resource professional. She came to the PLC deeply concerned that she was losing a sense of self. She reported that although she was working harder than ever before, her boss and her clients believed she wasn’t fully using her talents.

Susan signed on for one of the most exhausting middle positions and within 24 hours, she was reenacting her back-home life. She was running from one part of the system to the next, trying to satisfy everyone’s needs, unable to say no to any request, and receiving little or no appreciation for her efforts.

She felt totally incompetent, defeated, and out of control, which triggered a torrent of tears. “This is what I do. I give up myself. I keep my focus on others so that I don’t even know what I want or need. In the end I don’t respect my self and they don’t respect me either.”

For Susan, the breakdown provided insight into her automatic response of serving others to the exclusion of her own needs and the needs of the larger system. That which would seem to earn her respect and power paradoxically did the opposite. It was only when Susan could stop the automatic response, give consideration and then voice to her own opinions and needs, and take the risk of alienating others that the cycle was broken.

She then found power and pleasure in saying “not now” or “let me think about it” or “I can do that if you take care of this.” By changing her relationship to the job and to other parts of the system, and risking alienation, she became a force for change.

A role at the bottom of a social system creates particular challenges to women because the pull to stick together and be part of the”we” is strongest here, and it’s what women know how to do best. Lucy has moved into entry level management in a large financial institution receiving several promotions at a young age.

She arrived at the Power Lab knowing that she was successfully climbing the ladder but seriously questioning the cost of playing the game. In conforming to the rules, she was simultaneously losing her own voice.

In her Immigrant role Lucy quietly did her work and didn’t make waves, although she gave support to those who rebelled. Gradually she became interested in a project, something that required getting permission and resources from other parts of the system. She was able to persuade those above her to support her, but when none of her fellow workers want to participate, she became discouraged.

“I don’t know if this really matters anyway, and if it does, I don’t know if I can do it by myself.” Lucy was close to giving up on the project and on herself; the cost of potential separation from the group seemed too high a price to pay.

Lucy soon recognized that if she wanted to really grow, she must be willing to be a maverick, in pursuit of her own thing. “This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Will I be seen as crazy or a pariah? Will my group let me back in or will they push me out?”

Lucy was willing to test the boundaries of the “we” and risk standing alone in order to pursue something she felt passion for. She discovered that she could act on her own in a way that earned her respect rather than alienation.

Her enthusiasm for her project and her persistence in making it happen created a model of entrepreneurship for the society. Group members learned how to support her individual actions, even when they didn’t understand them, and simultaneously to care about her welfare.

Lucy drew on this experience to create both energy and leverage for her throughout the rest of the program, and positioned herself for a promotion when she returned to work.

PATTERNS OF POWER

What patterns emerge from these three stories that may be helpful to women as they consider their relationship with power? Women in top level positions commonly encounter the system dynamics of being tested for influence and feeling unsupported by peers.

For the women here, feeling powerful came with finding a passion for something bigger than themselves, along with an ability to communicate confidence through attention to language, voice and posture.

For women in middle positions, recognizing the ways in which their need for approval and their reflex to take care of others was driving their behavior allowed them to break the cycle of disempowerment. By reclaiming themselves, their opinions and feelings, and being willing to say “no” at the risk of alienating others, they found their power.

For women at the bottom of social systems, where survival and a push for conformity are strong forces, the cost of feeling powerful can seem almost life-threatening. The women in our stories found that being willing to stand alone for something they believed in created leverage and respect that afforded a different kind of support, but support nonetheless.

Clearly, it’s important to hold the belief that having power is not only okay but desirable. Then, as this article has revealed, a passion for something bigger than self, confident body language, establishing boundaries, and a willingness to take a stand are all keys to feeling and enacting our power.

We hope that our perspective offers insight and challenge to you in defining your own relationship with power.