Power and Influence

Aug 7, 2020 | Women's Leadership

Melinda Gates commits $1B to ‘expanding women’s power and influence in the United States’

There’s a headline that captured my attention last October! Melinda Gates pledged 1 billion over the next 10 years to “initiatives designed to accelerate gender equity in the United States.”

Just a few days prior to that announcement, Gates kicked off a 7-part series of articles on Women, Power and Influence in Harvard Business Review.  In her article, she admits “I recognize that “power and influence” are not words we have historically associated with women — nor are they words that all women associate with themselves… Still, I use these words, imperfect and imprecise though they are, because they are the best way I know to describe what men in this country — in particular, white men — have long had that women have not.”

Here’s the link to the full article titled “Gender Equality is Within our Reach”: https://hbr.org/cover-story/2019/09/gender-equality-is-within-our-reach

Gender equity: It’s an excellent goal as we expand our conversations around equity in this very trying year. 

Let’s go back and examine those two words: Power & Influence.  Are these qualities reserved for the few? Do we demand power and influence, or do we gain them over time? And can we visualize a world where men and women attain power and influence in equal numbers?

To answer these questions, I would like to add another word to this dynamic duo.  Contribute.

I believe we should all strive to contribute with power and influence.  Now we’re in my wheelhouse: Communication. When women can contribute ideas and decisions proportionately with the men in the room, and those ideas and decisions are received with equal consideration and respect, then gender equality is truly within our reach.

Look around your next meeting. What’s the ratio of men to women?  What percentage of the decisions are being proposed by men?  Even if half the room are women, statistically speaking, women do not contribute in meetings at 50%.  Far less.  One study showed that men are 5 times more likely than women to make decisions in face-to-face meetings.

But it’s not entirely about the percentage of time we speak (or contribute) in meetings. It’s the quality of the content, and how you handle yourself in the room.  Is your message concise? Have you removed all tentative language which imparts a perception of uncertainty?  Have you delivered your ideas with conviction?  How often do you contribute a decision proposal in a meeting?  Do you deliver it with confidence, using person-directed gestures and eye contact?  Perception is everything.  A lack of participation could suggest that you shouldn’t attend the next meeting, thereby getting cut off from the opportunity to contribute.

But unequal participation is not just about changing the women.  It’s about changing the culture of the organization.  Recognizing how gender bias shows up in your workplace, and then bringing men into the conversation about why it happens, why it matters, and what to do about it.  We must consciously look for unconscious bias and seek out opportunities to be more inclusive.

Speaking of opportunities, women are often excluded from decision making forums. I worked for a company where many of the male executives headed out to the golf course on a regular basis. I decided to take golf lessons.  At the time, that was my only way to bust into their decision-making lair.  The thing is, I knew they needed me, because homogeneous meetings result in homogeneous decisions.  How restrictive, anti-innovative… and boring! 

Now, let’s go back to my questions from earlier: Are Power and Influence reserved for the few? Absolutely not. Do we demand them? No. Much like trust and respect, they are earned over time by consistently showing up and contributing (there’s that word again), and then using your power and influence not in a self-serving manner, but to benefit others. (the team, the committee, the company). 

Finally, can we visualize a world where men and women attain power and influence in equal numbers? We can. It starts by learning to contribute with power and influence in all areas of our lives, not just at work.  In fact, when we expand this idea beyond corporate America, it becomes quite easy to recognize where women contribute every day with power and influence throughout our society. (That’s an entire new blog post!)

Melinda Gates is right.  Gender equality is within our reach.  The momentum we’ve created is exciting, and I’m personally looking forward to what’s ahead.  I intend to continue my strong commitment towards overcoming gender bias through my research, programs and outreach. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts.