Power and Success: What’s Different for Women

Nancy Pelosi is now the re-elected Speaker of a US House of Representatives more female and more racially diverse than ever in our history. Pelosi and the new congresswomen are giving us a changing picture and a new narrative of what power looks like and how to achieve it. What’s different? Jill Filipovic of the New York Times writes that “power, for all of American history, has been white and male.” She notes that the white male story of how to achieve power is one of meritocracy: power is earned through individual hard work. This story tells us that if white women and people of color do not have power, it is because they have not worked hard enough to earn it. The white male story of power also has a particular look, sound, and context, states Filipovic. It is tall, deep-voiced, and has a partner and children that depend financially on it. The goal of achieving power in this narrative is individual legacy. The new narrative of power arising from the stories of the women of the 116th Congress includes the following:

  • Power can be earned and wielded by women of every race, religion, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, and so on—not only by white men.
  • Power can be achieved through collaborative, generational efforts built upon community trust to move together toward the common good.
  • The purpose of power is not personal legacy but collaboration to improve an evolving and complex ecosystem that impacts all of us.
  • The goal of achieving power is not personal empowerment but comes with a responsibility to appreciate those who came before. Here are some examples:
  • Ayanna Pressley, the first African American and first woman to be elected to the House from Massachusetts, paid tribute to Shirley Chisholm, the first-ever African American woman elected to Congress, as she took office.
  • Rashida Tlaib, a Muslim woman, took her oath of office in a traditional Palestinian robe.
  • Ilhan Omar, the other Muslim woman in Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore suffragist white during their swearing in and spoke of the struggles their families had endured.
Our society has always been uncomfortable with powerful women. Until now, women have paid a price for trying to fit into and enact the male narrative of individual achievement. Being seen as “too ambitious” or “too interested in personal glory” has turned people off to voting for or hiring women leaders. Filipovic suggests that perhaps the new narrative of group and community collaboration as the means to and purpose of power for women will diminish collective discomfort with powerful women. Collaboration and support are important and quite different for women than for men, not only for achieving elected office but also for career. A recent study, reported by Samatha Schmidt of the Boston Globe and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that men are told that to get hired for executive leadership roles, they should develop a broad network of diverse and influential contacts and avoid cliques. Surprisingly, the researchers found that this advice works well for men but not for women. Success in achieving executive-level roles for women lies with other women—a clique of women, to be exact. Schmidt reports that researchers found the following:
  • While women do need a wide network of contacts, they also need a close inner circle of other women who provide support and gender-specific job advice.
  • Of the highest-achieving women, 77 percent had strong ties with an inner circle of two or three other women connected to each other—also known as a clique.
  • Each woman in the inner circle had a set of contacts that were independent of the contacts of the other women. Each woman in the inner circle could serve as a bridge to a vast number of connections to support each other when navigating the job market.
What are the chances that this changing narrative will stick and open possibilities for women? Let me know what you think.   Photo courtesy of United States Mission Geneva (CC BY-ND 2.0)  ]]>

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