Introduction: Please read first:
I had a lovely dinner last night with a few friends; sitting in an restaurant’s garden and sipping champagne, we were there to celebrate a success or two. The discussion turned to having a sense of having power. No one did. So this morning I spent some time looking at PsyInfo and other collections on women and power.
It is very important to get some understanding of feeling a sense of power. People with such a sense are more likely to act on and improve their environment (assuming they are benevolent and fairly competent). And we all agree, surely, that it would be good for such people to be shaping institutions in our environment. In short, we want women to feel more empowered to act. So I started to think about this and wrote some notes. Please make of it what you will and add to it what you can.
Let’s assume here that we’re thinking about power in an organization, and that it has to do with getting one’s choices or decisions realized. That’s not to say that one aims to benefit one’s self; rather, let’s suppose having power means that one plays a significant role in making happen what one thinks should happen. Let’s also assume that the goals we are discussing are ones we generally think are good. Your goal answers to this if you want to create an important area of study, and doesn’t if you want to spread swine flu so your university closes for a month.
One reaction to a sense of lacking power would be to accept the lack as an unproblematic given, and to connect it to ways in which women are not encouraged to seek power, are frequently challenged when they have it and, more generally, face stereotypes that are contrary to their having power.
To see it this way is to see the lack of a sense of power as an environmentally created psychological/internal phenomenon. Many of the self help books assume this is the case, and try to get one to get one’s head straightened out. Though they also offer advice for dealing with the stereotypes, and for gaining leadership tricks the men have. Thus one should cultivate a network of friends, and one should think of information as a commodity that one has to share or not, that must be fresh, etc.
But the situation is much more complicated, and it might be worth thinking about what other factors there are and what can be done about them. So here are some other factors. It would be great if others come up with more, or found faults in the ones I describe:
1. I’m pretty sure that one thing in my academic setting that gives one power is one’s doing things that people with officially conferred power highly value. We have what are astonishingly called the 800 pound gorillas** who march into the provost’s office with their demands, and they get a lot of them. Typically, they bring in lucrative grants, but there are certainly other ways to become a gorilla, such as getting famous prizes. If you don’t have power in this way, there may well be a big mismatch between what you value and what your environment values. [Surprise!!] This situation can look like the original one, but it isn’t exactly. It’s not so much that women are thought not to have power but, to take a frequently mentioned example, the community service women tend to value may not be valued, etc.
2. Sometimes one accomplishes things without having a resultant sense of power because it was more persistence than power that got one to the goal. One just tried all the combinations. And sometimes that’s because the organization one is in is too chaotic for there to be anything like simple paths to achievement. Other times it is because there is, e.g., a huge resistance to change. And there are many, many variations on these and similar themes.
3. My environment wants people put in charge of things (e.g., on committees to do thus and so) who will be predictable, cooperative and agreeable. This has created a two tier system of leadership: those the administration thinks are leaders (after all, they appoint them to the leadership committees and positions) and those the faculty think are leaders. I have no idea how widespread this practice is, and would love to hear opinions on it. I’d bet it is pretty widespread. However, high achievers often and notoriously come out impossible on this model, so I’m assuming there are limits to its universality.
** This praise denotes having lots of power. It comes from a kind of people who think it’s really good to be really big and muscular, one supposes.