|Power Play Strategies for Women|
Throughout my career as a lawyer, and now as a consultant, I've seen hundreds of successful women whose careers stalled at levels that didn't match their ambitions for themselves. They weren't held back by their work ethic or their skills. Nor were they ceding to the family pressures described in Anne Marie-Slaughter's now-viral Atlantic article; most were comfortable with how they'd integrated their personal and professional lives and had solid support systems at home. Yes, they faced unconscious bias at the office, but they didn't see the barriers posed as insurmountable.
So what prevented these women from advancing to the upper echelons of leadership and compensation in their chosen fields? A discomfort with mastering what Stanford professor Jeffery Pfeffer calls "power dynamics". Years of research demonstrate that women are far more likely to see their workplace as a pure meritocracy where good work will be rewarded, while men are more heads up about the role influence and power play in getting ahead.
This was the topic of discussion at a women's summit convened by the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law. After it, the Center's executive director Linda Bray Chanow and I co-authored a white paper detailing the power play strategies for women that the speakers and participants discussed at the summit.
The first step is, of course, to become comfortable with the pursuit of influence and power, not just achievement. As Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely said at the conference, clarity of purpose provides the energy and focus needed to overcome gender barriers.
Women also need to get over their fear of risk. Patricia Sellers, who has spent decades writing about powerful women, talked about the pressure to be perfect that women impose on themselves. The fear of making mistakes can lead to missed opportunities. You can't build power without taking risks and being willing to move out of your comfort zone.
Then there's the projection of power — a skill that poses particular challenges for women since it bumps against the societal norm of deference. Joan Williams, a professor at Hastings College of the Law, noted that women should get over the false choice of being nice or being confident.
Another power play women need to get better at is relationship-building. Career advancement depends upon connecting with influential people and seeking them out for strategic advice. And, although many women are adept at building networks in their personal lives, the very same people are often painfully uncomfortable building and using their networks in their offices and industries. This reluctance to ask for help is extremely detrimental to their careers. As Pfeffer explained, although such requests feel uncomfortable at first, the recipients are typically flattered and, generally, "asking works".
Setbacks are inevitable when seeking power. Accordingly, women seeking the most senior roles need to be resilient and persistent. In the white paper, we give several examples of prominent women who should serve as role models; when their plans were derailed or they were under attack, they pressed on, revising their strategies to come out on top. Katrina Dewey, the CEO of Lawdragon, described the "failure is not an option" attitude she adopted after she lost the financial backing for her new company after she and 13 others had already left their former jobs.
Perhaps the most critical message to emerge from the conference is the need for women to work together in pursuit of influence. As Roberta Liebenberg, the former chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession noted, it is group leverage that will truly change the power dynamic over time.
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