Power and how to use it

I’ve been thinking a lot about power this week. It’s a funny thing, power: when we have it we often have no appreciation or awareness of it but when we don’t have it, we can feel like our whole existence is undermined. In the work that I’m doing, focused on Diversity and Inclusion in Silicon Valley, I hear a lot of stories - from friends, from colleagues and from strangers. The content is always wildly different, the facts of the matter often intricate and varied, but the central forces at play are always the same - someone had power and someone did not.

This week, someone at work who wants to join our volunteer-based efforts described the group of leaders that I am a part of as ‘intimidating.’ I felt myself baulk: How can I possibly be intimidating? Sure, I am often in rooms with very senior people, but I myself am not particularly senior, so I can’t possibly be intimidating…right? This tactic of denial is common when a light is shone on a position of privilege, whether it be through our race, our gender, our seniority, our class status, our education, our sexual orientation or any other number of identifiers (check out this eye-opening list which allows you to examine the varied ways in which we can experience privilege).

It is easier to simply deny the existence of power that we hold, rather than face the harsh truth of how we may have been abusing our position. Of course, everyone enjoys feeling powerful: it’s in our primitive nature to want to exert authority over others and stay at the top of the food chain. But in a world where we are no longer fighting for literal survival, that outdated ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality is keeping us locked in a society where the imbalance of resources and opportunities is only getting more stark over time, each side feeling more and more separate from the collective.

Abuses of power can be blatant and easy to define. Today, it is (I hope) widely accepted that sexual advancements from a superior or a client are abuses of power and should not be tolerated. But abuses of power can also be grey and fuzzy. Take the example of a woman who finds herself in a group of more senior males at a work event, being put on the spot to answer probing ‘would you rather’ type questions. Whilst the conversation is not sexual in nature, there is still arguably a power dynamic at play. The woman is expected to ‘perform’ and play along, and runs the risk of alienation if she doesn’t conform. Whilst the behaviour isn’t reserved only for women, I believe that women DO deal with this scenario often, under the guise of ‘banter’ and ‘messing around’. I, like many other women, have brushed off these interactions in the past, happy to play along because we are sharp and witty enough to go hand-to-hand with the instigators. At least we are part of the conversation when we are playing by their rules. But it’s not OK that women are expected to play these games from a position of powerlessness.

Power can also be misused through omission: not using your power to lift-up someone in a vulnerable position. This week I talked with someone who shared a story of a time at work where she had stood up publicly for what she felt was right, leaving her in a very vulnerable position. She felt exposed, raw, and alone. I know this feeling all too well. Some could argue that this feeling is more exacerbated in women because as traditional ‘gatherers’, our female ancestors in prehistoric times would have been left for dead and eaten by a jackal had we not enjoyed the protection of our pack of fellow female gatherers (listen more about the concept in this episode of the Guilty Feminist podcast). In an industry where women and people of colour are disproportionately junior in comparison to white men, it is not unusual for them to feel unsupported and isolated. In the specific situation I heard about this week, the power players were all men, more senior, who watched the events unfold and did and said nothing. Whether through a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to put their own neck on the line or them having no awareness of how much they could make a difference by doing something, the result was that no one with power stood up and supported her.

Power shifts can happen in all walks of life, not just in a work setting. Take friendships: even in friendships where there is an even balance of power and both people feel like they receive and give support in equal measure, there can be changes in the dynamic at random points. When one person puts themselves out there in some way - perhaps through sharing something vulnerable or starting their own business or side project - a moment is created where the other person in the friendship faces a crossroad. Do you use this opportunity to relish being the one in the less vulnerable and in a more ‘stable’ position or do you get down in the weeds with your friend and truly empathize? I’ve never seen a better illustration of what empathy really means than in this video by Brene Brown. I can’t watch it without tearing up. When we are truly empathizing with another it means getting down in that hole with them - we can’t empathize from a position of separateness. That means meeting a vulnerable share with openness, kindness and more vulnerability. It means promoting your friend’s business as if it were your own.

I understand why it can feel so scary to choose empathy - we are all terrified of losing our power because we all know how shameful it feels. I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing at work and being fired for offending someone. Someone who I respect hugely who has dedicated their life to Diversity and Inclusion at work told me “if you are working in this space and aren’t getting in trouble, you aren’t pushing hard enough for change.” So I’m going to keep talking, writing and watching for those moments when I am the one with the power - how I act in those moments is what will define me.