Getting Past Stereotypes That Limit Women’s Power
Kathleen Kelley Reardon is Professor Emerita of Management at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.
She earned her Ph.D. summa cum laude and with distinction at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst after receiving her BA degree with honors from University of Connecticut at Storrs. Kathleen is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Mortar Board.
Her primary areas of scholarly interest have been leadership communication, persuasion, politics in the workplace, negotiation and interpersonal communication. Public Opinion Quarterly described her first book, Persuasion in Practice, as a landmark contribution to the field.
Kathleen has taught negotiation, leadership and politics in the MBA, Executive MBA, and International MBA. For 15 years, she served on the USC Preventive Medicine faculty, developing interventions aimed at changing health habits among high-risk populations. She also served as associate director with Warren Bennis of the USC Leadership Institute.
She has authored 10 books and numerous articles, including three for The Harvard Business Review. Her 2001 book The Secret Handshake: Mastering the Politics of the Business Inner Circle (Currency, Doubleday) became an Amazon.com nonfiction and business best seller. It was followed by The Skilled Negotiator (Jossey-Bass, 2004), It’s All Politics: Winning in a World Where Hard Work and Talent Aren’t Enough (Currency, Doubleday, 2005), Childhood Denied: Ending the Nightmare of Child Abuse and Neglect (Sage, 2008), and Comebacks at Work: Using Conversation to Master Confrontation (Harper Business, 2010).
Her first novel, Shadow Campus, is an inside look at the politics of academia, a mystery-thriller and a love story. Forbes described it as a “masterful debut.” The sequel is underway for publication in 2015.
Kathleen was awarded the 2013 Humanitarian Award by the University of Connecticut Alumni Association based on her contributions to underserved groups, especially in originating and working to develop college prep academies for foster teens (www.firststar.org).
Kathleen is a signature blogger at Huffington Post (since 2005) and also blogs at her website (www.kathleenkelleyreardon.com).
It isn’t that women desire power less than men do, but in traditional organizations some common avenues to obtaining and maintaining power are blocked for them. A host of stereotypes will continue to limit women’s power unless they remain alert to the problem and take steps to remedy it. Powerful people use status, reward, coercion, information, perceived similarity and expertise to influence others. Women, stereotypically, aren’t supposed to use direct forms of these tactics, so often they develop more indirect means of acquiring and maintaining power.
Those young and new to organizations can acquire some useful forms of power simply because their skills, energy and gung ho attitude are required to accomplish certain tasks. So, early in a woman’s career, her inability to exert direct power doesn’t usually deter her advancement -- but that changes as she moves upward toward managerial positions. In order to continue advancing, women need to acquire their own intrinsic power and not merely associate with or find ways to please those persons who have it.
Some women are fortunate enough to look like they expect and deserve to be heard and respected. One such woman told me that having been brought up in New York City, where you have to learn to take care of yourself, gave her an edge. But the greater advantage, she added, was “I look like I could be dangerous. My voice and my physique are scary to a lot of people. They don’t want to mess with me.”
There’s something to be said for looking like you could make other people’s lives difficult. This is more than verbal assertiveness, which can land the label “aggressive” on many women. Being ‘scary’ isn’t only to be capable of aggressiveness, but to be comfortable with acting that way when necessary. Women who master this form of power personify Machiavelli’s advice that “one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting.”
Being “scary” doesn’t work everywhere, and frequently isn’t accessible as an avenue toward power for women, even when desirable. The key is to: (1) become aware of what labels are keeping you from exerting the forms of power used effectively by those around you, and (2) either ignore such labels and go ahead to develop those forms of power or find comfortable ways to develop more accessible forms that work just as well.
It’s important for women, and men, to learn how to explore power and its various forms, and then stretch beyond their current boundaries. For women, this often requires reframing labels like “aggressive” that others may try to impose on you, by suggesting instead that you are “determined” or “persistent” or that what they perceive as “irritable” is exactly what’s required to get a specific job done.
Power is necessary to move ahead in most organizations. It needn’t be overbearing or displayed constantly, but if you want others to think twice before they dismiss, patronize, or exclude you, it’s important to give them a reason to do. Sometimes, it doesn’t even take much effort to reach this point. When you refuse to let other people act as if you have no power, you take the first step toward demonstrating that you actually do.
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