17 November 2010

What is the Difficulty Women Have with Women in Power?

—Kathy Jellison's focussing talk, November 11, 2010

Thanks to all of you for the kind invitation to try and focus the conversation today. When I was asked to speak to this particular issue of “What is the Difficulty Women Have with Women in Power?”—my first inclination is always to rush to the defense of the sisterhood—None or very few women have this kind of difficulty! Or how dare we make such sweeping statements about women! I hate when that happens that anything about us is framed in the negative. We get such bad press anyway—couldn’t we have framed the question better or in a more positive way? Of course we are all comfortable with other women in power—we exalt in their success; we cheer at their experiences of getting ahead in this challenging and often patriarchal world!
But then I decided to actually think about the topic; to go back in my mind. What was my discomfort about—aside my general discomfort about painting all or some women with a particular brush—was my reluctance in using the word power—could I get at this subject by using another word that doesn’t feel so nakedly masculine, would that make it easier to speak to the issue?
So then I began to explore the contrast between authority and power. The word ‘power’ has to my ear overtones, suggesting coercion, the use of force in some physical or psychological form. Authority on the other hand, with its overtones of ‘legitimacy’, reflects a quality worthy of admiration. According to the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin, a former pastor and friend of mine at Riverside Church in New York City, “a person earns authority by showing understanding, wisdom, and compassion. Generally authority and power are both present to some degree in powerful individuals and institutions, but surely the ideal for people and institutions of power is to embody the attributes of authority. He goes on to say, “I know how authority and power vie in your souls, for they continually compete in mine. They vie in our role as parents, in the way we conduct ourselves on the job, in the way we perceive our beloved nation. And it is in the divorce of power from authority that we can trace the darkness in or personal lives and in the life of our nation.”
So as the existential framer—I will share my own experience as a person who wrestles with power and authority. I have long ago claimed for myself that I am indeed a person of power, a person with authority—and have been so for most of my life. I now comfortably claim this descriptor—as I try to only use my powers for good! Ever since I was a child—the second child of a family of 5 children, I have been called upon and risen to take a leadership role. “What shall we play today?” would ask my friends. Or “what have you done today to make a difference” would ask my Mother at dinnertime.
There was as long ago as I can remember an expectation that I would have thought a thing through, that I would have an answer, or I would provide some fun activity in which my friends could participate. I was very comfortable being the decider—as George W. Bush once named himself (I am thinking I probably won’t quote him again). If someone else had an idea or a thought, they would bounce if off me as if I had the final say or had the best input.
Okay—fast forward 20 years or so to Kathy Career Girl. I came into young adulthood in the sixties and seventies and did quite well professionally, being in the right place at the right time several times. A willingness to say ‘Yes’ to opportunities, and no generation ahead of me so show me where the lines were of how far I could go. I identify with columnist and writer Anna Quinlan as she claims certain realities in her early success—a product of affirmative action for one.
I had relocated several times for my firm, August Max, a wholly owned subsidiary based in New York City of Specialty Retailing Incorporated out of Hartford, Connecticut which was a division of a Fortune 500 company, US Shoe Corporation out of Cincinnati, Ohio. Such was the landscape in the 60’s and 70’s of my industry. It was a heady time in retailing; there was an enormously potentially explosive market of Wait For It—TA DA—working women with a whole new set of wardrobe needs—their lives required working clothes, weekend clothes and leisure clothes—all with matching whatever.
After eight years in the nineteen-seventies of working for this emerging nationally-expanding organization, I became President, Chief Executive Officer (that is what it said on my business cards!) and the company grew to over $50 million dollars doing business in 12 states and looking to add more.
Now I will get to the part where I experienced some women who had difficulty with some women in power. August Max had over 800 people in our employ around the country—the vast preponderance of which were women—and women who were often my senior in age and life experience. I found that not many of us—either myself as a person in a power position, not they-- as persons who worked for a woman in power had much experience with how to go about all this. For much of our collective lives, theirs as employees and mine as employer—our role models had been men. And we learned how power was wielded in hierarchal and patriarchal systems—although many of the guys we worked for and with were terrific role models and good bosses—such was not always the case.
And so I found often that some women’s expectations of me were that I would behave like a daughter—deferential, or like a mother, forgiving and/or looking the other way. Or if I was too gentle or easy-going, some were likely to read it as a sign of weakness and try all sorts of shenanigans. With several employees, I thought I had to assume a tough stance in order to move the work forward. There were even occasions when we had to part company and I hope I handled it well. There were often times when employees, some men and some women, questioned by what authority I was making decisions. But the occasions were few and far between—I was learning to be a leader of people, and they were learning how to work with a woman leader. We practiced on each other.
After I left the corporate world I began work in the world of non-profits. Right after I moved from New York City to Providence, a friend called to ask if I would help him with the search for a new Executive Director of the YMCA in Woonsocket, my home town. He was the board president and asked that I meet with the board to map out a strategy for the search. After that meeting the board asked if I would serve as interim director. “Me, run a Y? I was from 7thAvenue in New York’s garment district—I didn’t know a hockey puck from a basketball—but sure, why not? I’ll give it a try!” From the Y, I went as interim director to Leadership Rhode Island for 14 months, then Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design for 4 years, then a few other stops including AIDS Project Rhode Island, RI Coalition for the Homeless, Worcester Center for Crafts, and others.
After the fourth stop, I figured out that interim directorships are what I did for a living now. The boards of directors who entrusted me with the leadership of their organizations during crises and transitions gave me a window view on many societal issues—great learning experiences on things that mattered or had consequence for the world we live in.
I learned to work to serve a mission—transferable skills; comfortable with decision making, trust the experts around me; hear the truth of the matter; and know the value of mission centered, outcomes focused, client based organizations. I learned that non-profits when they work well are delivery systems to deliver something that matters.
When I was asked to be interim director of the Women’s Center of RI, I was thrilled. Ever intrigued about what it might be like to manage in a purportedly feminist environment, I jumped at the chance to take the job permanently.
Arguably one of the best outcomes of the women’s movement was addressing domestic violence—I learned that every woman’s story is every woman’s story—just a matter of degrees and life circumstances. All of us have scars at the hands of power mongers and bullies, all have shed tears at tyranny. We worked hard at not knowing what was right for each woman who came into shelter, at not asking women to trade one form of tyranny for another. I have come to see that issues of power and control are not gender issues, but bullying coercion—issues of choice and self-determination . We understood all this at the staff level. But the Board of Trustees (which was comprised of 80% women) was a different tale—their refusal and discomfort in seeing our common lot with the women we served and therefore our common charge of dealing with systemic change came as a big surprise to me and a challenge; I watched the fear of many of the trustee woman if I tried too hard to make the association. We had taken 15 months to do strategic thinking and planning, had written a comprehensive approach to systems change; had lined up the strategic alliances that would make it possible, and ran head on into the board’s reluctance to act on the plan. I felt the fear and denial of many of the woman in volunteer leadership positions—I heard their fear in words that felt like “if I admit to having too much in common with the women here in shelter, I might have to face my own life and see that someone else makes my decisions for me, has me on an allowance, runs my life. The valuable lesson I learned from that experience is to accept that different woman are at different places on the journey toward their own personhood—I learned not to judge that which I didn’t understand—that women’s amazing ability to survive their own circumstances needs to be accepted as to what they can take in and what they are ready to change.
Organizationally I learned that culture has strategy for breakfast every morning. It doesn’t matter how good the strategic plan and thinking was—unless the leadership was ready to embrace change, nothing much was going to happen. I needed to get out and move on to where social change was possible.

So all of this is old news—60’s, 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. Has anything changed? To a large degree, I am still in positions of authority and yes—power. People work for me, I am chair of boards of directors, I am a trustee who chairs committees. I am on the leadership team at Mount St. Rita Health Centre in Cumberland, Rhode Island, where I am the director of development; I have been a consultant to non-profit organizations for over 20 years doing interim directorships and executive coaching.
Many of the folks I work for and with are women. Here is what I have learned. If I remember that 'it ain’t personal—it’s business'; if I remember that there is more at stake than being right or wrong, in charge or nay. If I remember that in the world I inhabit, in the words of Margaret Wheatley, author of   "Leadership and the New Science," there is what she describes as a force field that holds us together in a particular mission—often made up of a society’s dreams and aspirations that call us to our highest selves. My authority now comes from what I am called to do—finding that which unites a team of people, that which excites and engages us and yes, often it is I being maybe the one who names it and invites others to participate. I find the more in tune I am with the rightness of the work, and less concerned about being in charge—the more the work gets accomplished. Today, 35 years later, I am a better leader because it isn’t about me—it is about the work.
If ultimately what I care about is sharing my voice so that others can find theirs—I like to think I manage like a woman—but more likely I manage like a person who is good to have around, to get the work done. I like being a person with authority—I claim that for myself willingly.
Do I think some women still have problems with women with power? Sure, but I am not sure it is because they are women; maybe they have had bad experience with people in authority. I want to be in the company of people who give women the benefit of the doubt or at least try to understand their fear and their problems with other women.
In Rhode Island the Episcopal bishop Geralyn Wolfe is not without her detractors—some genuinely dislike her, many disagree with her priorities and leadership style. But it pains me to hear from old line Episcopalians that after Bishop Wolfe it will be a long time until there is another woman bishop in Rhode Island. I am thinking that there have been really not good male bishops in our history, and no one says no more men can aspire to the bishopric. Some things are slow to change.
In the few weeks that I have been thinking about this talk with you all, I have asked several women to share their experiences of women who have had problems with other women in power. I heard time and time again that the behaviors with which they took issue, upon reflection, had less to do with gender than a set of undesirable characteristics that can be found in difficult people—those folks who feel the necessity to wield power, the power brokers, who use positions of authority to intimidate and belittle.
For my money, give me someone with the moral authority to tell their own truth; give me someone who may be afraid to don the mantle of leadership but does it anyway for the good of all, because it needs doing and they know others will follow with their own honesty.
At this stage of my life and career I have the luxury of surrounding myself with bright, caring women—sisters of Mercy—their founder and role model was Catherine McAuley who to this day has not quite achieved sainthood but whose values of compassion, hospitality, respect for all, and stewardship make her a very powerful woman. The feminization of the Christian church through the Mercys is a conversation for another time but such fun to be part of. I learn from them everyday what good leadership is all about.
So I have come to believe that women who may have problems with women in power need our understanding, our compassion, our hospitality. I am thinking that their journey has been not as easy; and that their point of view is shaped by challenging experience. I try to forgive them all—and more importantly I learn how to not be the nightmare of their past experience—I want to invite them to accompany other women on a quest to find the brave new world. We have too much to do.
I have become an expert on giving the blank stare. When someone, either gender, comes at me, wanting to wrestle for control and power, I have learned to ask the question, “And how does that serve the mission?” “How does that idea move the ball down the field (my only sports analogy)?” And then I go silent with the inquiring blank face waiting for an answer that hardly ever comes. I find that the potential detractor cannot get traction at my expense and often moves on. Reframing the conversation, refocusing the issue—does my heart good to stop some variations of passive-aggression in its tracks. I don’t like bullies in any gender and have finally learned not to rise to the bait. It isn’t important and not my fight. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good heated debate or even a good scrap on occasion, but only about things that truly matter to me. So there it is, my approach to power and my response to those who have problems with it.
I want to close with one of my favorite prayers:

For making me a woman in what still so often seems a man’s world, I thank you.
Because you taught me by example that power is your gift and not my possession.
For giving me a body though it sometimes fails me and is not all I wish it was, or rather, a good deal more that I wish it was, I thank you.
Because you taught me that I am so much more than my body and yet my body is your holy temple.
For calling me to be more than I believe I can be, and less than I sometimes pretend I am, I thank you.
Because you taught me that being is more than doing, what who I am and whose I am are more important than what I do or what I have.
For all that you are, I bless you as you have so greatly blessed me.

Ms. Mary Conner, from the Women Uncommon Prayer Book

Kathy Jellison
November 11, 2010