Stepping Up and Into Power

anneperscheljane perdueContributed by Dr. Anne Perschel and Jane Perdue

A cocktail of cultural, systemic, organizational, as well as personal impediments hinder women’s progress in attaining executive positions and yield woeful statistics.


  • Make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs
  • Occupy 8% of corporate clout positions
  • Comprise 15.7% of Fortune 500 corporate officers, and
  • 1 in 18 earns a six-figure salary versus 1 in 7 for men.

But some women do make it through this course of cocktails and do so while remaining true to who they are and standing on their feet. Therein lies the hope that by discovering an spreading knowledge about how to run the course and break through previously unbroken records, or ceilings in this case, more women will step up and into power. When they do so, they will transform their organizations and culture of business, which is a key lever for societal change.

To this end, we seek, find, and pay forward breakthrough wisdom and are currently conducting research to discover:

  • What professional women believe, think, and feel about power.
  • Whether they want more.
  • How they try to attain it and what works.

In Phase 1 of our study, 214 businesswomen shared their candid views on power. In phase 2, women in executive clout positions reveal and pay forward the beliefs, strategies, and behaviors they employed to earn those roles.

Revelations: Phase 1

The majority of women in our survey want more power but personal and organizational obstructions inhibit their progress.

1. The Cinderella Syndrome has many women passively awaiting their corporate Prince or Princess Charming to deliver Cinderella’s missing power shoe and fulfill her career aspirations.
2. A chorus of inner critics chant, “You can’t _____” (fill in the blank).
3. Being socialized to opt for being well-liked over being powerful.
4. Misunderstanding what power is, how it works, how to attain, use, and maintain it.
5. Legacy cultures, gender stereotypes, and self-perpetuating old boy networks.

I Have Met My Prince Charming and He is Me

It is an oxymoron to view power as something granted by others. Why? The person who could hand it over (and they won’t) has more, and can take back what he gave. This notion also ignores the need to be powerful and influential, not just to have a position of power. Nora Denzel, one of the executive women interviewed in Phase 2 said it well. “I have position power, but I rarely try to use it. It’s about getting people to do what we think is right, and have it be their idea. The worst kind of power is when it is just the position.”

We shared news of the Cinderella Syndrome with women in clout positions and by way of contrast here is what they said regarding power.

A short chuckle followed by, “No one is going to give you power. You have to do that for yourself.”

“Power is earned not given.”

“[In the early stages] You have to get your ticket punched by being an expert. As you move on you gain credibility by being work friends and forming partnerships with subject matter experts.”

“Know yourself and what you want. Let a few of the right people know. Be specific. What is your dream job?”

“I get my five minutes with those in power to tell them, ‘This is who I am. This is what I’ve done and this is what I can do for you.’”

“Creating the social fabric, relationships with people who give you feedback and support your initiatives, as you do the same for them is key.”

“Figure out who has power and develop a relationship with them that allows you to get power.”

“Grab the empty chair next to the CEO and start talking to him when no one else dares. He’s just a man.”

“The success police will not come and find you. Part of doing a great job is communicating to others what you did and how you did it.”


Women are subject to being caught between opposing forces. They want the organization culture to change, but they don’t want to be disliked or be labeled aggressive. To avoid this dilemma, they don’t fully grab hold of and use their inner power to earn clout positions and the associated positional power they need to lead cultural change.

We believe addressing internal obstacles is the way out of this trap, and here’s how to do it.

  • Ditch the Cinderella Syndrome and find self-initiating heroines.
  • Stand against the pressure to be well liked over being clear and strong.
  • Override the voices of inner critics.

Having done this, she can employ strategies such as:

  • Developing strategic networks and alliances to provide her with feedback and to support her initiatives as she supports those of her allies.
  • Getting with power brokers and singing her achievement song.
  • Solving high visibility problems using her unique skills, style, and perspective.

When she attains her power position, she applies The Rule of Three to change legacy cultures, gender stereotypes and bring an end to entryways that exclude women and other minorities.

What is The Rule of Three?

Every woman reading this article has likely been the only or one of two women at a meeting when one of them speaks up and is ignored, overridden, or negated. Within minutes a man presents the same idea, and the response is startlingly positive. Imagine the power of three women in the room, who have already agreed they will call awareness to these dynamics? Now that is a power not to be ignored and so the change occurs.

We thank Sophie Vandebroeck, CTO, Xerox; Nora Denzel, SVP and General Manager, Employee Management Solutions, Intuit; and Shayna Joson, Managing Director, Societe Generale, for paying forward their wisdom and lessons learned.

Dr. Anne Perschel is known as “an unstoppable force advancing women leaders.” She is president of Germane Consulting – an executive coaching and organization development consultancy; and VP Mentoring & Sponsorships at 3 Plus International, advancing aspiring professional women through mentoring and sponsorships. Dr. Perschel is also featured on radio, at conferences and in various business magazines.

Jane Perdue is the CEO of Braithwaite Innovation Group, a female-owned professional and organizational development organization and has been featured as a leadership and women’s issues expert in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

0 Response

  1. Victoria Rosa Sturley

    Great article! I can’t wait to read the whole study.

    Reading Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever I have also realised that women sometimes don’t act with power only because of internal messages, but also due to the retaliation they can face. I would love to read some pointers about how to deal with them.

    And I love the rule of three. I think building networks of women before getting to the top is key, so we can help each other out, as I know you are doing.