by Brenda McKenzie
What happens when you hear the word “power”? A typical response is that power is “bad,” that it is something that uncaring leaders wield to get what they want. For me, as a woman, I had these same thoughts and feelings. Power is about manipulation and I am not a manipulator. Several experiences I have had in the past year have changed my mind about the concept of power and its role for women in leadership.
Last spring I took a class on power and politics. I admit to going into the class with a negative attitude toward the concept of power. I saw it as manipulation and negative, and many of the examples we initially read about confirmed my views. As the course progressed, I began to examine my perceptions and think more critically about what power means, to me as a leader in general, but also to me as a woman. I came to realize that my views about power were shaped by political and societal actions aimed at telling me, as a woman, what I could and could not do. And when I really examined my past behavior, there were definitely times where I used my expert or legitimate power to achieve an objective. Did this make me a bad person? No. I had just started to view power differently.
Not long ago, I was talking with one of my doctoral program advisors about the concept of power. This recent conversation included a discussion about our incoming president and how she may “use” power.” Which led to a reflection on a previous female president and her ability to effectively use power to achieve her goals for the institution. There were certainly people who viewed this female leader as “bossy” or overly aggressive. There were comments questioning how she, as a woman, could act a certain way, when what she was really doing was using her power to make positive change happen for the institution. This got me thinking about some pieces I had read when doing feminist leadership research. Beckwith (1999) makes the point that “…women are still punished, sometimes by other women” (p. 389). Why is it that women may feel the need to use their power against other women (or “othering” other women) rather than embracing a sense of fellowship and shared power? Beckwith further goes on to state that “…power [is] a complex tapestry of individuals, discourses, and structures…” (p. 391). Social construction of identity clearly plays a role in how women perceive and use power.
As I re-read Beckwith, I was struck by messages I was hearing from female student leaders participating in an exploratory study of leadership identity development. Several of the participants spoke about the backstabbing that happened to them coming from other women. One participant commented about having to develop a thick skin and not worry about what others think because they could not see the bigger picture of the good she was trying to accomplish for the group. This same woman, however, clearly struggled to understand why other women were trying to tear her down rather than working together to build something great.
What does all this mean? Besides showing that we still have much work to do in terms of lifting up other women rather than tearing them down or climbing over each other to get to the top (whatever that may mean), it sent me a clear message of the importance of my work with female students on a college campus. As an educator I had to acknowledge that addressing power was not something I had been comfortable doing – and so I ignored it. I can no longer afford to ignore this topic. I need to engage in honest dialogue with female (and male) students about power, the discourses of power, and how to change those discourses. But I also have a responsibility to talk honestly with women about how they may be impacted by traditional, hierarchical forms of power, from both men and other women, as well as help them begin to develop the skills to successfully navigate these experiences and come out the better for them.
It also means examining my own behavior, how I treat other women, and how I appropriately use the power I have in my given roles. Am I using power with or for rather than power over? As Beckwith states, in regards to issues of power between women, “Women have been aware of them, and feminisms need to address them, with due regard to the divisive context of gendered power” (p. 395). Dialogue needs to occur around this topic; we need to not be afraid to discuss the concept of power thus allowing it to go underground and continue to fester in its traditional, hierarchical ways.
How do you use your power to engage in these dialogues?
Citation: Beckwith, J. B. (1999). Power between women. Feminism & Psychology, 9(4), 389-397.
Brenda McKenzie is currently a full-time doctoral student in the Higher Education Administration program at Kent State University. Her current research interest is women and leadership. She has 20+ years of higher education experience, most recently at Kent State working with leadership development, Greek life, and student activities. Her other professional experience included working with student organizations, new student programs, non-traditional adult students, and residence life.