After more than 35 years practicing law, I still ask myself, "What does a powerful woman look like and how does she act?" Embodied within this question is the fundamental issue of whether a powerful woman must act in a way that is more like a man. Assuming power facilitates our ability to accomplish our goals, are there things we can do to better convey our power -- perhaps by mimicking men? Maybe we can better understand how we should act by looking at Athena, who, while springing from the head of man, her father, Zeus, wielded her considerable power in her own way.
Greek mythology embodied the image of the powerful woman in Athena. As the daughter of Zeus, she was the goddess of wisdom. She was the protector and preserver of the state and social institutions, including the arts. As for the embodiment of male power, the Greeks turned to, among others, Prometheus, Ares, Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles and, of course, Zeus. They were portrayed as kings, gods of war, heroes -- men of strength and courage who acted decisively and without fear. Athena was powerful and warlike, but in a very different way than the male Greek gods, as she used her intellect and skill and avoided war and conflict, except when necessary to protect home. Athena was portrayed as a combination of the male and female Gods -- combining both the nurturing and compassion of the female Gods, with the strength and bravery of the male Gods.
Thirty years ago, many women in the business world would attempt to convey power by emulating men. Many of us "dressed for success" and wore male-like suits, with cotton shirts and little bow ties. We could achieve power if we looked (and acted) like our male counterparts. We tried to battle them on their own turfs and show the world that we were their equals. Not only was it exhausting trying to figure out how to draw the line between our feminine and masculine roles, but it impacted the number of women willing to move into power positions. Many elected to pursue more traditional roles since these roles were more consistent with societal norms and avoided conflict.
Since that time, significant progress has been made. As a general matter, women no longer feel compelled to emulate what men do. There are role models provided in real life and in the media that embrace a new way for women to convey their power. There are many examples of this. One is Hillary Clinton. She exudes power and confidence, not only through her pant suit "cloak of power" or the way she speaks and acts, but because of her intellect, knowledge and skill. In the media, women need only look at how Olivia Pope is portrayed on the television show, Scandal. This character has created a whole species of powerful women who call themselves "gladiators": strong, decisive and fearless. Yet, both of these women show a softer side, too. They are feminine, vulnerable, nurturing and consensus builders. In other words, they act like Athena.
Although these role models and images are being presented and women are moving in the direction of embracing their own direct use of power, there is still a long way to go. We only need look at the recent statistics of women CEOs or women in boardrooms to know that additional progress needs to be made. Even though there is more awareness of the need in the work place for differences not only in gender and race, there is still a lack of women at the top.
One way to change this is to change how we act and how we are perceived. Perhaps, when women act more like Athena they will be perceived as more powerful. So, assuming this might help, what could we incorporate into our style?
Be Comfortable With Your Power. Athena embraced her power. So be content with your pursuit of power and influence. Seek leadership opportunities. Don't change your behavior to adapt to what you perceive to be the norm and don't shy away from power. Power gives you influence and allows you to accomplish your goals. Then recognize and embrace your own power.
Speak Up and Be Bold. Speaking is a privilege of power and it projects power and authority. Yet, recent studies have shown that even powerful women speak less often than their male counterparts. There can be a number of reasons for this (e.g. fear of backlash or perhaps our own self-doubt), but we cannot expect to get what we want if we are not willing to promote our beliefs and communicate them often and with authority. Act like Athena.
Be Willing to Fail and Don't Dwell on Your Failures. Both Gods and mortals do have faults and do fail. We must recognize that failure is a part of exercising power. The question here is how should we react to our failures? Men generally have a tendency to laugh at their failures and to move on without too much reflection. Perhaps finding our inner Athena would help us accept our failures, take more risk and keep our eye on what really matters.
Be Skillful and Wise. We need to develop and use skills (in communication, technology and organizational management, for example). Skills are necessary and when combined with wisdom, will allow us to achieve results and demonstrate successful ways to lead. We should not be quick to judge, quick to react or shortsighted in our approach to issues. Using our skills to build consensus and being wise in establishing strategic relationships can and will result in solidifying our seat at the table.
Don't Underestimate the "Cloak." An appearance of power can be equally as useful as power itself. Images were important in Greek mythology and are important in the current world. Images convey power. Athena is portrayed as regal, serious, serene and, in most instances, wearing full armor. We should consider how we project ourselves and how we appear to others. Consider the character of Olivia Pope: she is regal and confident in her appearance. She also stands out as different -- wearing lots of white instead of the usual black. Just like Athena.