I recently devoured In the Company of Women, a book of interviews with women artists, makers, and creative entrepreneurs. The photography of these accomplished ladies is luscious, but the best part is how fully they all embrace their power as leaders living public lives.
Being the face of a company, making final decisions that seriously affect others, championing a vision and seeing it through, managing people and money and product: these are powerful, public roles. They can also be terrifying. For every Sheryl Sandberg or Peng Lei, thousands of other gals stay safe in their cubicles, dreaming about being COO or CFO or CTO or even Second Intermediary Vice-Vice President of Chain Smoking Research, but not taking action to make it happen.
Here are three fears that women often have about power — and how to slay them, so that you can be as power hungry as you want to be.
Fear #1. People will hate me
Yes, Virginia, gendered abuse does await women who strive for power. Hillary Clinton knows this. As does Kellyanne Conway. Marjorie J. Spruill, the author of “Divided We Stand,” noted in the New York Times that “There seems to be great resentment of both as power hungry and wanting to control men. Whereas Hillary is called castrating or shrewish, Conway is often called a slut. The implication is that she is using femininity to control men.”
Yes, Gamergate. Yes, lewd and stupid comments and tweets. Yes, mockery of clothes and hair and lipstick and every decision you’ve made since you first menstruated. Yes, being called ugly and/or fat.
Not every position of power sets you up for terrible treatment. Being the co-founder of a company that provides superior information security solutions for the accounting industry probably isn’t going to push the same cultural buttons as, say, running for president. But if you do gain public power as a woman-shaped person, you likely will get some amount of flak.
How to slay: WOTC writer Terri Trespicio has encountered a fair number of trolls in her career. “You’ve got to build resilience by expecting [troll behavior] and ignoring as much of it as you can,” she writes. Here she offers four specific strategies for handling the haters in public life.
Fear #2: I’m taking someone’s place.
Imagine yourself as a leader. In your company, in public service, wherever. Do you get this sort of queasy, untethered feeling, like someone’s about to scold you? Or a dreadful certainty that someone must have opened the wrong envelope, that "Moonlight" is really Best Picture winner? (And you are "LaLa Land?")
There are two things going on here. First, you are experiencing imposter syndrome, which is incredibly common. Anyone with a functioning superego will experience doubt and feelings of fraud when they step into an unfamiliar role or into a situation with higher-than-usual stakes.
Second, and more insidiously, whether you realize it consciously or not, you may feel in some ways guilty for usurping a position meant for someone else. As Mary Beard reflects in the London Review of Books, “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male. If we close our eyes and try to conjure up the image of a president or (to move into the knowledge economy) a professor, what most of us see isn’t a woman.”
Thus some women get the weird inner vertigo, the nose-wrinkling sense of I’m doing something wrong, when they move toward typically male positions of power.
How to slay: Accept that feeling fraudulent is part of the deal — and that it has an upside. It means your senses might be perked up, you’re paying attention in a different way, and you might even be more open to having and hearing innovative ideas.
Acknowledge the feelings for the old, societal story that it is. Then, find your role models and cling to them. Read In the Company of Women. Scour Instagram for accounts of women creating or advancing projects that you love. Or maybe there are some men in power whose approach inspires you. Cut and paste bits of ten different leaders into a model that is right for you, and hold it near for the wobbly moments.
Fear #3: I will have no life of my own.
Grace Bonney, author of In the Company of Women, spoke about this fear on the podcast So Money with Farnoosh Torabi.
“I think the biggest sort of eye opener for me [as I wrote the book] was realizing that almost all of these women had in common the idea that they had given up work/life balance, because I think that is a concept not rooted in reality,” Bonney said. “I think that life and work are constantly in flux, and the market in which we’re all working is constantly in flux.
“The idea that you could ever sort of achieve this perfect stasis place is just unrealistic. So many of these women who had been in business for a long time really had kind of let that concept go.”
As you move into success and power, your life will change. You will not have time for all the things that you want or need to do. There will be immense responsibilities. There will be sacrifices and regrets. You may not be utterly fulfilled in all the ways you hoped. This is a reality of any life, but especially a life dedicated to achieving big goals.
How to slay: Bonney learned this from her many interviews: Own it. Own your success, your responsibilities, your power, no matter how hard it can be sometimes. It is yours, and you will figure out a way to solve problems, get help, move through difficult decisions.
Owning power and responsibility becomes easier when you are clear about what is important to you, both in your public and private lives. Tiffany Dufu, Chief Leadership Officer at Levo, uses a “drop the ball” question to get clarity. She asks herself, throughout every day, “Will responding to this email, picking this up, or whatever is on your list, is that my highest and best use in achieving what matters most to me? The answer is usually no. And it gives me permission to drop the ball.” She adds that sometimes there are consequences, but often, the higher purpose is worth it.
Knowing what matters to you is, in the end, what will sustain. When you know what you care about, what gets you in the gut, you can gain the power you need to make the product or social change or company or nonprofit or parent’s council or innovation you want. You know you can, and you know why you should. The power is yours.