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?