J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Let Me Mansplain Male Power To You

Mane power.

Mane power.

What gives men more power (more privilege, higher status, higher salaries) than women? Obviously that isn’t the case everywhere, all the time. There are plenty of situations, microcommunities, and interactions where women have and yield more power than men. But generally, walking around in most countries, men are safer, richer, and more free than women. Why?

Part of it is institutionalized sexism (laws that repress women’s rights in various ways). Part of it is social conditioning. Most men are conditioned and taught from birth to gain and wield power (all four kinds of power). Part of it is the influence of higher testosterone, which edges men towards dominance and selfishness. Part of male power stems from voice register. And part is on-average greater physical strength (and the implicit or explicit threat of violence that a minority of men use to bully women).

Another aspect of male power is the confidence gap. Men, on average, overplay their hand, waltzing into situations slightly underprepared or underqualified, with the confidence that they can learn as they go, or make it up as they go along. This can backfire, but it can also work to a man’s advantage (or to anyone’s advantage who uses this strategy). Punching up, the risks are higher, but so are the rewards. It’s a man’s world, so (many) men expect to succeed, even if they haven’t put in the time and sweat equity.

Women, more so than men, overprepare, and take on work that they are fully qualified or overqualified to do. Many women feel less confident in situations than their experience, knowledge, and preparation level might predict. This can lead to women underplaying their hand, following when they should be leading, or otherwise not wielding the power they possess.

But this is one dimension of power that anybody, male or female, can claim via Jedi mind control.

Moving Heavy Kitchen Appliances

Recently Kia was headed out the door to teach a class, and was feeling nervous about it. I knew she’d been studying and preparing a great deal, and even if she wasn’t 100% on all the material, she knew enough to get the job done. So I recommended that she just own it — fake confidence even if she wasn’t feeling it. “A man would feel confident even if he had done 10% of the prep you’ve done,” I said. So own your work, and take charge of the class.

Later she mentioned that the class had gone really well, and that expressing confidence had made her feel more confident, and that confidence had made her students feel more comfortable.

Some social situations (including teaching a course) require lead and follow roles. Taking the lead role in group situations doesn’t come naturally to very many people. Public speaking is a skill that requires practice, as is leading a group in any particular activity. But confidence helps. Natural dominance (from greater height and weight, higher testosterone, brain architecture, etc.) also helps. But mostly, stepping into the lead role is something you learn. Anyone can learn to command, control, exude gravitas.

The first step is realizing that you can, that you don’t need permission, that in some situations taking charge is the right thing to do. We get so used to taking certain roles that sometimes we don’t even realize what we’re doing. A literal example: Kia wanted to practice leading in blues dancing, so she was trying to show me how to follow. I said “Sure, go ahead and lead.” She said “Your hands are in the wrong place.” I didn’t even realize, until that moment, that hand placement in partner dancing isn’t symmetrical. I was so used to leading that I had absolutely no concept of how to follow (in dancing). Later, Kia learned that it’s better to practice leading with someone who is already a skilled follower. Otherwise it’s like trying to move a refrigerator. Same applies to life in general.

After you commit to the lead role, getting good at it is just learning and using little tricks. Generating suspense, so the followers hang on your every word. Maintaining direct eye contact when you speak, but offering eye contact only to people who you want to encourage to speak. Lifting up those who need to be lifted, and spurring on those who need to be spurred. Giving clear and precise direction.

With a little practice, you’ll be moving refrigerators.

Use the Force

My friend M was ready to quit her job. She was good at the work, and it paid well, but there was too much work, too many responsibilities, a never-ending to do list, and it was stressing her out. Not enough fun time in her life.

“Instead of quitting, why don’t you work 1% less per day?” I said, half-joking. “See what happens. That way you can find out how little work you can get away with before someone gets upset.” I knew that M was a hard worker, very conscientious, and I guessed she was probably already working harder than most people at her company.

A couple months later, M reported that she had actually taken my advice, coming in half an hour later each week, leaving some tasks on her list undone, and not apologizing. The result was that her bosses had freaked out and offered her a more prestigious position with more pay. She said no thanks (after all, she wanted less work, not more responsibility). Then what did she want? How could they keep her (she hadn’t threatened to quit, but they could feel her slipping away). She ended up with way more vacation time and higher pay, thank you very much.

M was in a position where she held a great deal of power (because she is so valuable to her company, practically indispensable), but it didn’t initially occur to her to use that power to get what she wanted. I wasn’t thinking in those terms when I made my suggestion — it was just an off-the-cuff remark that reflected my male bias. Men are taught that you get the work terms that you take (via negotiation, sometimes brinksmanship). Politely waiting for your employers to recognize your personal sacrifices and lighten your load will leave you waiting … forever.

Of course, if you are easily replaceable, a work slowdown could backfire. The “playing hard to keep” strategy only works if you’re holding a good hand. But most women aren’t taught to wield the power they already hold (with the possible exception of sexual power), and underestimate how much force they can apply.

Use What You Got

Most people have some kind of natural advantage when it comes to persuading others. Kia wins people over with relaxed friendliness. For whatever reason I have a voice that makes people believe what I say and want to do whatever I suggest (with the exception of my daughter). Some people are tall and imposing. Others are so attractive that they have everybody’s attention the instant they walk into a room.

What you don’t have naturally, you learn as you age (if you’re paying attention, and if you’re the kind of person that likes to persuade others). Most aspects of accumulating and wielding power are learned, not inborn, regardless of gender (or gender identity). I think biological differences (smaller bodies, higher voices, less testosterone) are a significant hurdle for women who want to accumulate and wield power, but they’re easily trumped by strategy, conscious use of nonverbal cues, and reputation.

What are your thoughts about gender and power? What techniques do you use to lead, command respect and attention, and persuade others?


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  1. Excellent as always, JD. For me this comes right on the tail of a smartypants gathering (sort of the FOO of Europe) I just attended, where I explicitly noticed my differing reactions to the male and female presenters/attendees (they managed to achieve 50-50, or very close to it, which for any gathering with a tech emphasis is still unfathomably rare). I noticed how at this point in my life, there is a tone/style among most male “experts” that immediately turns me off: I had a very hard time paying attention to their content on account of the ego/bluster that enveloped it. Women tended to survey, greet, encompass everyone in the conversation/session (these were small group sessions between 5-20, usually). They sometimes expressly admitted being nervous or uncertain, and this very vulnerability/humility won even more regard and attention from me (and, it seemed, from many others). Maybe this is just me, or maybe there’s an evolution afoot….. I do think you’re right: in traditional male dominated boardrooms and classrooms, the fake-it-til-you-make-it bravado you recommended to Kia is probably still a good idea…. When I began my own session, to a group that started off 70% male, 30% female (it evolved to 50-50), and 95% strangers to me, I felt tremendously nervous and really had to steel myself to convey authority, and not throw in too much self-deprecatory humor. One man did walk out. Everyone else stayed and I got more and more comfortable until by the end of the hour I felt fully in my element, and I received a lot of gratitude and praise from everyone. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Thanks Ariane … glad you enjoyed the post. Definitely possible/probable to turn people off with overconfidence (or false modesty). Have to know your audience and even then it can be hard to win people over. Glad your session went well!

  2. Michael

    I work as a developer and in IT I don’t see many women opting to take on technical jobs. They take on the project management, sales, marketing, biz dev type stuff but not many get into the techie. aspects of it.

    Those who do don’t very well.

    I’m not sure why that is as the women I meet in the non-technical roles seem to do very well at selling, biz dev, project mgmt. etc. These are all jobs that require a good bit of brain power so I’m certainly not implying that women aren’t smart enough to do the job.

    I think in your paradigm this would be because of a “male power structure” – but those same male power structures don’t seem to be holding them back in the other areas I mentioned. Women actually seem to be doing very well in those areas.

    For example – our ops team is about 85% male. There are a few women database admins and some in the project management and biz analyst office. But the rest is all male and multi-cultural too (mix of off shore, on shore immigrants and some white dudes too).

    • Neil deGrasse Tyson had a good comment on this topic. Until women and minorities are not actively discouraged from getting into STEM fields as children (and they still are, mostly), we can’t really extrapolate anything about gender/race/biology and profession or proclivity. There are probably some minor statistical differences (women, on average, may be slightly “naturally” better at jobs requiring high empathy), but mostly we see men cordoning off high-status jobs and pushing women into lower status jobs. Ex. — cooking was considered women’s work until “chef” became high status.

      Which isn’t to say there aren’t mental gender differences. But too often minor biological differences are exaggerated by culture and become strait-jackets.

  3. Being a female, I possess most of these “manly” traits already. I am gladly admiting it for the first time.
    Would like to work on more of them now, without worrying about losing my feminine streak. 😛

    • I agree, it’s freeing to let go feminine vs masculine. Beyond basic sexual dimorphism, the terms fall apart under any scrutiny. More aware of that having a daughter, not wanting to limit her.

  4. evalinesees

    I suppose I am also a “manish” female in many respects (very tall, low voice, cool/calm/confident demeanor, can easily insert into a group conversation and often end up leading groups when no clear leader is identified). I am sure it’s not an accident that I had a relatively easy time succeeding in a male-dominated field. I have always followed the “fake it until you make it” method without knowing to even call it that. It’s also probably not an accident that I have never been sexually harrassed in any way, even the subtle ones, despite being attractive enough to model in my teenage years. Physical size and self-confidence are apparently kryptonite to predators that seek out those with low confidence. It’s one of the main reasons women leave my field. Those remaining either have dominant personalities (think ENTJ) or are married to someone in the same field — which I guess makes them more protected from horrible experiences AND gives them far more mentoring (the male partners are almost always older).

    One comment I had though, is that I remember reading that female voices differ from males “naturally” only very little. My low-pitched voice is simply my natural voice — for some reason (maybe poor recognition of social cues as a child), I don’t project “up”. This is also varies by culture. In India and Japan, women seem to project their voices VERY high to my ear, almost falling in the range of a child. Here is an interesting article about that:

    • Thanks for the comment and the article. Your comment reminds me of a friend of mine who retrained her voice when she started working as an attorney, and is now training her daughter to use the lower register.

  5. Jeff

    Hey! In response to your article “How I Cured My Asthma With One Simple Lifestyle Change” I would like to know what ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 pills you took. I don’t know how many of each I should take for it to be effective.

  6. In Yuval Harari’s book “Sapiens”, is a very interesting chapter on this whole subject. I think you would enjoy reading it.

  7. Just found your site. Very interesting.

  8. I tend to overanalyze things as you do, but when I read your blog posts I think I get too tired out by that thinking process that I feel compelled to simplify the subject matter. My thoughts on gender and power:
    One of the most powerful forces in nature, water, is also one of the most gentle. Never underestimate the power of softness and humility. Water is always seeking the lowest ground, not trying to be high and mighty. It is soft and giving, yet is has the power to erode even the hardest of rocks. Maybe you are looking at the wrong qualities in your definition of power. 😉

    • I agree — not all power is hard/forceful! Persuasion by appeal to emotion or conscience, seduction, cleverness, even some forms of passivity (like nonviolent protest) come to mind.

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