Women and Power: Do We Get It?

Contributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

There is a large space between having power and being powerful. Women have historically had a love hate relationship with power. Personally, I am one of them. In some situations in my corporate career, I was in positions of great power but had a hard time exercising it. As women, we have fought throughout history for our rights to be empowered. Why then can we be so ambivalent about power when we get it?

Here’s a personal story that illustrates the point. A few years ago, my company asked me to move to Mexico to turn the business around from our rapid market share declines. I had P&L responsibility, leadership for all functions (including a manufacturing plant and R&D), in total an organization of about 600 people. I felt energized by the challenge. Our turnaround strategy included rapid new product introductions and our team came together to make this happen.

Here was the challenge: our local plant manager, who also had a reporting relationship into the global supply chain head, was hyper-focused on lowering costs. New products would increase plant costs so he was resisting the launch plan. Who had the power to make the call? Technically, me, as I was the P&L leader. Did I exercise that power? Not really. Not the way most men would. Make the call. Move on. Instead of asserting, I found myself negotiating, cajoling, bridge-building. It was a longer and frankly much more painful process, and I didn’t necessarily feel very powerful through it.

Sound familiar?

The story ends well. We tripled our rate of innovation, regained market share and profit. However, the experience taught me important lessons about power. Here’s what I learned about what keeps women from exercising power as men do.

1. Our desire to be liked. Whether we attribute this to the way we are raised with gender stereotypes or even the ways our brains evolved over time, women face what Catalyst calls the double bind. Women behaving assertively are viewed as competent but not as effective interpersonally. If we behave according to gender stereotypes, we are viewed as less decisive. In my Mexico role, I am sure there were a few men looking at the situation wondering “why is she not using her power?”

2. Our natural inclination to prefer collaboration over competition. Studies [PDF] show that women are rated higher on factors like collaboration, teamwork, and relationship building while men are rated higher on developing a strategic perspective. These studies resonate with my personal experience and other research that suggests that women when faced with a conflict will “tend and befriend,” a trait that is not viewed as “exerting power.”

3. Lower (perceived or real) self-confidence. Our self-confidence impacts our own perceptions of how much power we have. In European studies, [PDF] women reported feeling less self-confident than men. Men were more confident with 70% of them having high or very high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of the women. Half of women managers admitted to feelings of self-doubt about their performance compared to only 31% of men (this may be driven by the fact that gender roles make it easier for women to own up to feelings of low self-confidence). Some behaviors that women exhibit are also perceived as indicators of low self-confidence: being overly modest, sharing credit, asking for others’ input, being deferential, not “bragging” about our accomplishments, not asking for the next promotion, being silent in discussions, not taking our seat at the table.

So why do women have an ambivalent relationship with power? It’s because the traditional definition of power that is exercised around us doesn’t feel authentic for many of us. It can feel more autocratic and self-serving than we’re comfortable with. If this is the predominant way we perceive power being exercised in our organizations, women risk burning out from the constant coping and adapting they have to do. Organizations risk women opting out altogether.

We need to create an evolved definition of power, one that doesn’t create internal conflict in half the talent available in today’s workplaces. Let’s call this the “transformational style” of power. It comes from a style of leadership called transformational leadership, a more collaborative, engaging and inspirational way to lead. It’s time that all leaders (men and women) recognize this type of power as legitimate. It’s time that each of us feel comfortable role-modeling this type of power, not because it is feminine, but because it is effective to lead the organizations of today and tomorrow.

What is the Transformational Style of Power?

Transformational leaders exercise power differently from transactional leaders. Transactional leaders tend to use sources of positional power (their ability to reward and punish based on their positions). This is based on having power, a strong position in the hierarchy. Transformational leaders tend to use personal power (ability to inspire and motivate). This is what I see as being powerful.

How Do Women Exercise Power?

In general women feel more comfortable using personal rather than positional power. According to research by Alice Eagly quoted in “The Leadership Styles of Women and Men” in Journal of Social Issues, “Findings suggest that female managers, more than male managers, manifest attributes that motivate their followers to feel respect and pride because of their association with them, showed optimism and excitement about future goals, and attempted to develop and mentor followers and attend to their individual needs.”

Why is Transformational Power Important for the Organizations?

The pace of change in human behavior and paradigms isn’t keeping up with the technology and connectivity changes we’re seeing. Our markets are now global. New competitors enter our markets from unlikely places. Leaders at the top of hierarchies have less information to make timely decisions than people who are closest to customers and influencers. This calls for dispersion of power. Yet, the safe dispersion of power can only be possible when we have mutual trust. Trust is strongest when the human spirit is engaged rather than just the human wallet.

We must be willing to redefine the cultural cues and body language of power based on the values that are critical for success today.

1. Integrity. Trust in our leaders and in our organizations is at a premium. We live in a transparent and porous world where the power of social media can make or break our business. Power used to come from hoarding information. Power now comes from sharing information in an open and transparent way.

2. Inspiration. The role of the CEO is now to be the Chief Engagement Officer, to capture the imagination and harness the creative talents of people inside and outside the organization. We’re biologically wired for inspiration. As Simon Sinek in this TEDTalk points out, Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.” He didn’t say “I have a plan.” It’s about “why” someone should care, not what they should do. Steve Jobs created fans and followers because his relentless pursuit of excellence was in service of creating “a ding in the universe.” Power is finding our personal inspiration and connecting with the tribe that shares the inspiration, to make something great happen.

3. Humility. Power is admitting we don’t have all the answers and we need your help. Power is creating a space for others to have the answers and have the glory. Power is bragging about your team rather than bragging about yourself. Power is being willing to listen and learn from anyone, anywhere in the hierarchy. Power is being willing to be vulnerable.

4. Flexibility. The new world requires we move fast. How many bad business decisions are never acknowledged nor overturned quickly because our egos are threatened? Power is admitting our mistakes quickly rather than pretending we’re invincible. Power is being able to admit failure.

5. Connectivity. In this rapidly changing world, the ability to create new networks and alliances to take advantage of new opportunities is critical. Winning organizations crowd source innovation from everywhere. Power is connecting with others to enable collaboration that serves all parties. Power used to be “I win, you lose.” Because we are connected to each other, now power is “I can’t win if you lose.”

Our world is changing rapidly. It is time our definition of power catches up. If we are to move forward as a society we need to make it comfortable for people of any gender to exercise the type of personal power called for above. We need to make it comfortable for men and women to take off the burden of their superman and superwoman capes. If we are to harness the creative talents of all people, we need to enable them to navigate the space where they realize that the ultimate source of power resides within – that they don’t have to have power in order to be powerful. Perhaps if I had understood this definition of power as legitimate, I would not have been so ambivalent about exercising it.

If this resonated with you please comment, subscribe and share with others. Connect with me if you would like to develop your own transformational power.

Henna Inam is a CEO Coach focused helping women become transformational leaders. A Wharton MBA, and former C-Suite executive with Novartis and P&G, her passion is to engage, empower, and energize women leaders to transform themselves and their businesses. Sign up for her blog at

6 Responses

  1. Cassie

    Ms. Inam, thank you for your thoughtful article. My husband is also in a leadership position and we have had some lively conversations about how to influence others and you are correct, often times if I try to use his tactics or him, mine; we do not elicit the results wanted. To his staff he comes across too soft and to mine, I appear too aggressive–sometimes it is laughable how we are perceived. What I have learned is that if either of us is genuine in our messaging and authentic to ourselves we get the best results.

  2. Lisa Levey

    This was a terrific article. I know I’ve struggled – and I’ve seen fabulous women all around me struggle – with owning their talents and the power that comes with them. I loved your expanded definition of power. I believe it is both – what you feel inside and the way you treat people (the most important) as well as the external demarcations that we use as shorthand for power and often provide a platform for sharing one’s thinking and world view.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I look forward to the time when our collective ambivalence about women and power – both internally and externally – is a thing of the past.

  3. Deb

    Nice article!

    Thanks for sharing the real ‘struggle’. While it is ongoing and many times HARD, it is worth it to be true to yourself and treat others with respect and encourage them to collaborate. Most times we get better results when we join together and take accountability to move ahead.

    I am in an environment that sometimes seems to be an uphill climb….until you make that ‘magic connection’ to move several steps forward THANKS to the team approach.

    Thanks for the reminder that we are not “alone”!

  4. Sally

    What an inspirational article. I particularly like the bit about ‘you dont have to have power in order to be powerful. I often struggle as most people I influence are at very high level and I am sometimes in awe of them so does hamper my ability to be facilitate or exercise gravitas. Your article has helped me reassure myself. Can anyone recommend a good book on ‘earning/getting gravitas?’

  5. Thank you Cassie, Lisa and Deb for your comments.

    I do believe that as leaders we are our best when we are authentic and can comfortably role model our own definition of power.

    It’s also important for us to speak up and recognize the broader definition of power as we see it being exercised by men or women in organizations. It will help us create the kinds of cultures that are more inclusive and will help each person feel comfortable being their authentic selves.


  6. Great article! Thanks for articulating the significant differences between transactional and transformational power. I wonder if, as women, we are afraid to exercise power because because we’ve only been taught one way – the ‘old school’ or ‘boys’ club’ way of doing things – and for many of us, it’s an uncomfortable/unnatural approach. Hopefully this information will encourage women to become more comfortable stepping in and stepping up.