How to find your power in the business world as a woman

I sat on a plane recently next to a woman reading a self-help book titled “Act Like a Lady. Think Like a Man!”  Really? I haven’t read the book, but dislike the premise already.

Spurned by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” book, there’s been much in the news lately re: women in business and how few of us are sitting in roles of power.  Only 17 independent countries (out of 195) are led by women. In the United States, women constitute just 18% of our elected congressional officials. Only 21 of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women and females hold about 14% of executive officer positions and 16% of board seats.

But is thinking “like a man” really the way to find your power in the business world as a woman? Why can’t we lead and think like women, bringing a greater diversity of thought to the table? Many research studies have shown that with women in positions of power, businesses are more profitable. We bring a different way of approaching challenges, relationships, sales and budgets to the board room.  That kind of diversity is critical to long-term success in an ever-changing world economy.

It’s important, however, we acknowledge that women get in our own way sometimes and start proactively embracing each other’s goals.  There’s a great white paper that discusses Women and the Paradox of Power. As the authors, Jane Perdue and Dr. Anne Perschel, write: “Women’s relationship with power is complex – a rich and robust interplay psychological, cognitive and cultural factors. For many women in business their relationship with personal power holds them back, be it lack of confidence, cultural conditioning or simply not understanding power in all its depth and positive possibility.”

The white paper concludes that in order for women to truly embrace their power in the workforce, we must:

  • Show up. Stand up. Voice Up. They must build the confidence and courage to tactfully toot their own horn.
  • Ditch Cinderella. Women must quit waiting for things to happen to them — start seizing opportunities and making things happen.
  • Forge strategic connections. Connections — who you know and who knows you — are the new currency of the workplace, particularly at higher levels.
  • Unstick your thinking means women do not have to choose between being powerful and being well-liked because there's a way to do both.
  • Know power: it's simply the neutral authority to achieve outcomes by deploying resources to drive change. Be powerful by understanding that power is readily available from a multitude of personal and positional sources.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Nancy Mace, the first ever female graduate of The Citadel and author of “In the Company of Men: A Woman at the Citadel,” speak about her experience.  Yes, she was harassed by men who didn’t want a female at the school.  But the most disturbing thing about her experience, to me, is that it was women who showed her the most vitriol. She would be stopped on the streets in downtown Charleston during her tenure at the school by women screaming obscenities at her because she dared follow her passion, change the rules and forge new paths.  Shame on those women.

The bottom line: if we women are to truly make large steps forward we must do a much better job supporting each other.  Mentor one another. Encourage one another. Sheryl Sandberg, Perdue and Perchel all understand this. We all know that it’s still a “man’s world” so working together to push ourselves into places of power is the only way to move forward at a faster pace.

--Kira Perdue - @kperdue

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