Building Your Knowledge Base

Women and power. The words, when linked, elicit some of the most complicated – and emotionally loaded reactions – in the English language.

Perhaps no one understands the complexities of the relationship between women and power better than 2012 Massachusetts Conference for Women speaker Gloria Feldt. The author, activist and inspirational speaker started her journey from a place with little power–as a teen mom and high school dropout in rural Texas. Yet through a confluence of luck, pluck, and plain old persistence, she spent the second half of her life at the top of the leadership game – and watching many other women struggle to reach their potential for success.

While writing an article for Elle Magazine in 20008 exploring why, though the doors were open and most external barriers removed, women still weren’t walking through them to run for political office–or as it turns out many other leadership roles–Feldt became obsessed with figuring out why. And she’s convinced she’s cracked the code that can bring women to leadership and economic parity for good—their own and the good of society.

Her latest book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, which reveals why just 18% of top leadership roles are filled by women. Using both inspirational stories and logical step-by-step guides (she calls them “Power Tools”), Feldt explains how women can redefine their complicated relationships with power and come out on top.

As Feldt wrote in a recent email, “It’s this relationship with power, almost a spiritual factor, rarely acknowledged by the metrics or even the philosophers, which I’ve witnessed in myself and countless other women, that fascinated me and propelled me to undertake this book.”

So how do women relate to power? What is it about the very word that makes us skittish? According to Feldt, we’re conditioned by society to believe that power simply isn’t very feminine. As she wrote in a recent article on her blog, women are praised for “being nice, putting the needs of others first, self-sacrificing, not caring about such male prerogatives as earning a high income or having a power title.” Women shy away from power because there are risks involved in challenging those cultural norms: “”It’s hard to change a culture while you’re living in it.”

Feldt saw the devastating effects of this fear of power first-hand when her own daughter retreated from the workplace after having children. She challenged her daughter on the decision, warned of the potential consequences, but her daughter was insistent. Now, her daughter has gone through a painful divorce and is struggling to make ends meet in a world where her pre-motherhood skills are no longer employable, while trying to balance nursing school, a full time,job, and raising her boys with only sporadic child support. And Feldt’s daughter isn’t alone: fewer than half of female MBA’s stay in the workplace after having children. Devastatingly, their retreat from power puts them all at risk later on, should they need to return to the workforce—not to mention resulting in lower retirement funds when they are older.

Fear of power is keeping us from reaching our full potential, from realizing a revolution that was supposed to be complete by now. Even as discriminatory laws have been largely eliminated, as women earn 60% of college degrees and make up half the workplace and as we smash glass ceilings, we continue to shrink from our true power-playing potential. In discussing the current stalled, “half-finished” revolution, Feldt writes that if this pattern continues, “We will be able to excuse and justify our lack of progress by pointing outward rather than owning our part of the responsibility to take the harder road to push forward courageously. Second, until we can stand confidently in our power, we won’t be able to lead ourselves or others with intention.”

So how can women learn not to fear, but to embrace, power in their personal, political and professional lives? How can we finish this revolution and claim our rightful places as power players in the world?

According to Feldt, we needn’t renounce our femininity or adopt male posturing. In fact, that’s the last thing we should do. Instead, she says, “women need to define power in terms that work for them.”

Power doesn’t have to be dominant or aggressive or overbearing. In Feldt’s terms, once women feel they have the “power to” rather than “power over,” they are infinitely more comfortable with their roles. This definitional shift drastically alters the meaning of power for all involved. Feldt writes that, “By defining power not as power-over but as power-to, we shift from a culture of oppression to a culture of positive intention to make things better for everyone.” The world works better for everyone when women embrace power on their terms.

When summing up her desire to empower women on their own terms, Feldt quotes Katie Orenstein, founder of the OpEd Project which teaches women to use the power of their voices in thought leadership: “It is important that women not just have the power to choose, but that they choose power.”

Whether or not we do is up to us.