What does the word power mean to you? Do you tend to view power as a force for progression, or do you see it negatively? This is something I’ve been thinking about for more than a year while writing my new book, Power Up: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Unleashing Her Potential, and it’s something that I’m utterly fascinated by, as power means so many different things to different people.
The word power comes from the Latin ‘potere’ which means ‘to be able’. Since then, the term has evolved to describe the ability to exert force. Power can be about strength, but also resistance. It can be used to protect, but also to overcome. At a personal level, if you can harness your own power potential, you will have the energy to achieve anything you want.
Over the past year I have spoken to hundreds of women about this energy and how they interpret it. Although this is a deeply personal thing, one thing we all resonate with is that to know what it feels like to be powerful, we also have to understand how it feels to be powerless.
I distinctively remember my earliest experience of powerlessness. It was my first day at primary school in the UK. Although I was born in London and spent my early years in Sussex, my parents had only spoken to me in French up until then. I was used to the gentle confines of the home environment, and the food that my Mum grew up with in her native Switzerland. The English language, culture and diet were foreign to me.
On that first day, I suddenly felt like I was on a totally different planet. Everything was big, loud and scary: I had no reference points and no map. That first lunchtime I struggled through the weird-looking food, but when they put a bowl of viscous white matter with a blob of jam in front of me, I felt instantly repulsed. Was I seriously supposed to eat it?
Cautiously putting a spoonful in my mouth, I was seized with panic, but unable to ask or do anything else, I spat it out into my cup, earning a huge telling off from a livid teacher. That day was a rude awakening. Struck dumb in a foreign land, I felt utterly powerless to defend myself or justify my actions. And that theme of not having a voice has been so significant to me that I’ve made it my life’s work to help people get theirs heard.
Since that day, I’ve been a dedicated observer of how power can develop, how it can be used for good, but also how it can be misused. Sadly, most of the women I spoke to have felt powerless at some point in their life or career.
In over 25 years of working in global organisations, I’ve had the privilege to meet thousands of incredible women. And what’s struck me is how hard many of them have found it to and have their voice heard, irrespective of expertise or seniority.
There was Dee, who blushed uncontrollably when asked to speak in front of people caused by being made to feel she wasn’t worth listening to from an early age. And Ally who has a first in English but who was reduced to tears because of a bullying boss who has shattered her confidence.
Then there’s Nadia whose opinions always came out as a self-deprecating joke and would often get talked over in meetings and Marcia who found it difficult to stick up for herself when people were taking credit for her work.
These are just a small snapshot of stories of women struggling to feel truly empowered.
And yet, we keep hearing that this is a great time to be a woman. Since some time in 2017, post #MeToo, post-Weinstein and the ensuing avalanche of public declarations, the world has changed, and women are finding their voice. We’re harnessing our power, challenging disparity and sexism in its many forms and forging ahead in professions that were previously dominated by the male sex. Whether or not you call yourself a feminist, it’s hard not to be cheered by women speaking openly about their challenges and gradually bringing about change in significant areas like sexual harassment and gender parity.
But sadly, change is not happening as fast as you might think. Across the UK – and the world – women still struggle to gain leadership roles in most industries. A report published in July 2019 revealed that, despite government-backed initiatives, 14 companies in the FTSE 350 still have no women or just one on the board. This is undoubtedly one of the causes of the UK’s glaring gender pay gap. In 2018, the European Commission published a report which showed that women are under- represented in decision-making positions in politics, and they still earn on average 16% less in business than men across the European Union.
So, in this, and many other ways, true equality is still a far-off goal on a dim and distant horizon.
So where does Power Up come in?
There are many reasons why exercising your full range of powers could be highly beneficial. There will be times when we find it easy to get our own way. But there are also times where we feel powerless to act, tongue-tied, gagged or held back by some invisible force. And there are other times when we’re triggered and experience an uncontrollable upsurge of power, flipping our lid and doing or saying something that we later regret or capitulate to the avalanche of emotion through an explosion of tears. Sound familiar?
As the old saying goes, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got; if you want something different, you need to do something different’. In this way, the most influential people are those with the flexibility to choose their response to the different situations and people they come into contact with and as a result, become powerful in a variety of ways.
This book is about how you can harness your power, rather than having it engulf you. How you can become attuned to its presence, and gain confidence from the knowledge that you can access it whenever you need it to make the most of opportunities life has to offer.
My aim is that this book will contribute to the diversity and inclusion conversation and make a difference. I’m saddened when debates become an ‘us and them’ where one group can only become powerful at the expense of another. This isn’t about winning power back, it’s about how we can all learn to co-exist in a diverse world. This is about how we can all Power Up together.
In the upcoming weeks and months, I will be sharing more about Power, my newly developed Power Up Model and how we all can use and implement it to educate, empower and grow.
I do hope you join me.
To order your copy of Power Up, please click here.
And to watch my TEDX on Gender Equality: The New Power Dynamic click here!