Women and Power

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.

4 thoughts on “Women and Power

  1. Nice question, Al. I was focused almost exclusively on the power to do things. There is a question about how you get that without some version of power over, but I think that at least in academia you can. The gorillas needn’t have power over; they just need to get the right stuff.

    One irritating thing that can happen is that the administrators can think that people who are the prize/grant winners are just the people to give power over others. That can lead to disaster, a number of versions of which I’ve witnessed.

  2. Here are some thoughts I have; I hope they are relevant.

    1) Academia is odd because it “rewards” certain kinds of behaviours, but the rewards are ambiguous at best. So, for example, if you are conscientious, reliable, hardworking, and painstaking, you will likely be put on a lot of committees. Administrators know you will get a lot done; indeed, you may very well do the work of the committee while most of the other ostensible members get a free ride. That’s the “reward” for your work-related virtues: But it simply adds to your own burdens, often, without giving you any real power. Why? Because the committee gets the credit for whatever is accomplished. And because you will simply be put on more committees, rather than getting a visible administrative position like department chair or dean–especially if you are a woman.

    2) Power is hard to hang onto in academia because, to some extent (especially if you have to “prove” yourself as a person of colour or person with disabilities or female person–categories not, of course, mutually exclusive), you are only ever as good as your most recent accomplishments. So, do you deserve power? Well, what have you accomplished recently? Especially, what have you done for the University’s reputation? I know a number of terrific minority and/or female academics who would be great leaders, but because they are constantly doing committee work (see #1 above) they have not necessarily won big prizes recently or published a book last month and hence are not seen as qualified to be in admin.

    3) And speaking of the latter: There is no really good reason to suppose that research accomplishments are the best qualifications for academic leadership positions. We are told that without major research stardom, the faculty “won’t respect them”. But i think a lot of faculty members would just like to have competent, dedicated administrators trying to run the place, not research stars, necessarily.

    4) Finally, there is the usual problem that behaviour that looks normal and admirable in men is not seen that way in women. That would include being an 800-pound gorilla.

    As a result of these factors, and others, it is very hard for certain people to exert power, and hence impossible for them to feel powerful.

  3. Introvertica, thanks so much for your comments, which really seem to me to broaden the discussion, since they are more about how one might have some power. I think that I was looking just at why these women who had accomplished things didn’t have a sense of having power.

    I think that, from what I can see, if you think there’s something that your college or university ought to do, AND you can get some funding for it, then you (impersonally meant) may well be able to achieve something and so find yourself with the power to do something you think is important. And since that’s your community, it might really be satisfying. But, as you point out, it won’t necessarily mean you have power to do much else.

    However, getting anywhere near university politics can be very tricky. I saw recently in a letter to the NYTimes a comment about administrators who compete with their faculty, and I’ve seen a lot of that. It might be that philosophy professors can safely achieve away, since we’ll never raise enough money to tempt administrators, but I wouldn’t even bet on that. Obviously, the quality of administrators varies, but even great universities don’t necessarily have great administrators.

    Anyway, in general I agree with your comments. BTW, I once asked a gorilla about how to deal with a situation and following his advice caused great upset. That was certainly not how a woman is supposed to act.

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