Next Step for Women Leaders: Redefining Power

Last week I was reminded of how far we, as women, have come and how far we, as a world, must to go. I attended the Women in the World Conference, hosted by the Daily Beast, an event that captured the voices and celebrated the accomplishments of the most incredible women in the world. As I stood in the lobby surrounded by flashing cameras, shining jewelry, and brightly colored, impeccably tailored clothing, I felt like I was at high end gala in New York City.  Just at the moment I was about to question if I was in the right place, I was pulled into a conversation with friend and mentor, Jill Iscol and Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. It was at that moment I realized I was surrounded by my heroes, the freedom fighters of my lifetime.

I could go on and on about how much I learned at the conference, but the piece that really hit home for me was the panel discussion on women leaders and power.   To give you a taste of some of the highlight remarks from these extraordinary women:

  • Sherly Sandberg, COO of Facebook, talked about how women must keep their foot on the gas until the very moment when it is truly time to slow down. She claims we are losing talented women leaders in the world because they “lean back” to early.
  • Susan Sobbott, President, American Express OPEN, said we have to stop saying women are opting out of the traditional corporate world. Instead, if you look at the growing number of privately held women owned businesses it is clear we are opting in to create our own paths.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator, New York, stressed the need for more women to get into politics. She confronted the audience with the reality that women do not have a seat at the table on issues related to our lives, we will not be happy with the outcome.
  • Mika Brzezinski, Co-host, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, talked about how women are great at negotiation, but not good at negotiating for themselves, they are too concerned about being likeable

While I sat in the back of the small auditorium nodding my head in agreement with so much of the conversation, I felt at the same time that there was a voice missing from the table.  This topic – Power – was the only topic the conference organizers saw worthy of two panels (10 panelists), yet not one of the panelists was from the nonprofit sector, nor the field of social enterprise.

This moment made me realize that, while we have come so far, perhaps we are still allowing the word “power” to be defined for us rather than creating our own definition. In the professional world, should power only be defined by having a seat on the board of a FTSE Company (which by the way only one sixth of the top 100 FTSE companies have a woman on the board), making as much money as our male counter parts, or rising to the highest positions of politics?

I am not saying we should give up the fight to achieve equality in the above mentioned areas. In fact, I think it is critical.  I believe we are at a moment in time when traditional power is being democratized though technology (just look at mobile phones or social media creating unforeseen opportunities in geographies afflicted by poverty or conflict), and the line between the for-profit and non-profit worlds is becoming less and less clearly defined (see Jed Emerson’s theory of Blended Value or Porter & Kramer’s HBR piece on shared value creation).

So in this unique moment in time, when women leaders are taking traditional and non-traditional positions of power, we should not only fight to achieve equality but perhaps we should fight to redefine what power means.

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