When we examine the glass ceiling that keeps so many women lawyers out of partnership and managing partner roles, we usually look at all the external factors that can impede a woman’s career – lack of mentoring, challenges with business development, family responsibilities, unconscious bias – to name just a few.
Chief amongst these external factors is how society defines power in very male terms. A powerful person is often seen as demanding, aggressive, decisive, self-confident, solitary and not collaborative. If a women exhibits many of these characteristics she risks being judged unfavourably and not someone whom many people, male or female, want to see in a leadership position. It was the classic dilemma faced by Hilary Clinton – how to appear strong enough to make the tough decisions about when to go to war while at the same time being feminine enough that voters could see her caring side.
Women are traditionally expected to be helpful, supportive, collaborative, humble and consensus seeking. If a woman demonstrates what are often seen as typically male characteristics, she can be labeled “difficult” or “not a team player” or much less kind words that show she is not behaving in ways that are expected of a woman. It is the classic gender bias where men “take charge” and women “take care”.
While these external stereotypes form real barriers there is an even bigger barrier that many women hold internally that can impact their careers and prevent them from seeking leadership roles. This internal gender bias is the discomfort that many women have with power.
These internal biases were examined at a remarkable three-day conference held at the University of Texas in 2011 at the Centre For Women In Law. This gathering of law firm managing partners, judges, general counsel, law school deans and senior lawyers produced seven strategies for women lawyers on how to acquire and keep power. Their findings can be found in a white paper titled: “Power In Law: Lessons From the 2011 Women’s Power Summit On Law and Leadership”.
One of the authors in the report notes “Career derailments and setbacks in organizations are infrequently the result of lack of intelligence or hard work.” “Rather, they are due to “an inability to master power dynamics.” It is not that women don’t learn the rules of the power game at play in law firms and corporations and known so well by men, it’s that women define power in radically different ways.
The conference identified that the first and most important strategy in gaining power is that women must become comfortable with pursuing power. To do that, they must first understand why power can make them uncomfortable.
When men are asked how they define power they frequently talk about “taking control”.
Women, on the other hand, often define power as “having influence”. This different use of language is not just a reflection of women displaying a softer and more acceptable way of yielding power. It also may stem from a belief that power is oppressive. As women have historically been controlled, often through brutal force by more dominant and stronger men, many women view power as ugly or frightening. They do not want to take on the role of an oppressor. For many women having power means controlling other people and they understandably resist this idea.
Women need to view power through a different lense. Power can be used as the report says as “something that allows you to solve problems and create innovation and solutions.” How can women achieve good results for themselves and others if they don’t gain and wield power?
While the conference report goes on to suggest six other strategies for gaining power such as conquering fear of failure by taking risks and building strategic relationships that help gain access to power, none of these other strategies resonated as deeply with me as the first strategy – becoming comfortable with pursuing power.
When I started out in my legal career, there were no female partners or judges to act as role models. I struggled with practicing law like the successful male lawyers around me. I tried to adopt their more aggressive and masculine characteristics. But it wasn’t me. I considered leaving law for another profession more suited to my personality and work-style, as I couldn’t see myself developing as a successful lawyer.
Luckily, I had one of those “aha” moments in a personal development course where I realized I was holding myself back with this imaginary perception that I could not act like a woman and be a successful lawyer. My entire career took off almost immediately after this shift in attitude as my confidence grew and I became comfortable with who I was.
Gloria Feldt, one of the speakers at the Texas conference says in her book “No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power” :
No one will willingly step aside and cede their power to you; it’s not going happen. You have to step forward and take it yourself.
While women can learn how to cultivate and retain power, we must first accept that power doesn’t mean controlling other people but instead power gives us the ability to be ourselves and do good work. Women need to be comfortable being powerful as the necessary first step in breaking through glass ceilings. When we do so, it will also create a shift in how society views power and those that wield it. Even more importantly, it will create new ways that power can be gained and held by both men and women.