What makes a woman powerful?
This week is the annual Most Powerful Women’s Conference in Washington DC, an awe inspiring gathering of female movers and shakers put together by Fortune magazine.
I attended for many years and soaked in the opportunity to hear speakers like Ursula Burns, General Ann Dunwoody, Glenn Close and Diana Nyad. I’ll never forget riding from the airport one year with entertainment genius Geraldine Laybourne, and asking her questions about her career in the media business. It was a pinch yourself moment as she relayed stories about the early years of Nickelodeon and getting advice from her kids.
A few years ago I realized that I had not received my usual invitation. Thinking there must have been a mistake, I sent a note to the organizers who wrote back saying that they were sorry, but the event had become so popular that they needed to “edit the list.” After a small personal pity party for no longer making the grade (along with being sad about not receiving the fabulous gift bag!), I realized this was an interesting call for self-reflection. Did I actually feel less powerful? I had gone from managing thousands of employees to working side by side with just a handful. Where I once oversaw a billion dollar budget, I now sweat over every one of my very limited dollars. No longer can I pick up the phone and call my head of human resources or information technology for instant expert analysis. I am now more likely to ask a question in an online forum and hope that someone out there has faced the same challenge. Maybe that’s a lot less power.
Yet I have honestly never felt so engaged and confident. I am working on something that I believe can make a difference in the world. I am traveling to amazing places and getting to know people from diverse cultures. I have my hands back in creative tasks that I used to have to delegate. I only schedule meetings if something worthwhile is going to get accomplished. I can take my son to school and get home in time for dinner and bike rides with my family. Could it be that I have traded power for something deeper and more sustainable?
I have always been fascinated by the movement of people on and off Fortune’s Most Powerful Women List. It almost always seems that once a woman loses her position, she has lost her power and her place. Is this type of pressure really what all my historic heroines were fighting for? Is traditional power how women should define their success? Is this type of power really what matters to our identity and happiness?
It would be interesting to know if young women today aspire to be on a Most Powerful list or if they measure success by different yardsticks. My guess is that if they think about power, it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Would a Women Making the Biggest Difference list look different? Or a list of Women Enjoying Life the Most? Hopefully young women today are thinking and dreaming about power in new ways and will work to broaden the measures of success for all of us.
Meanwhile I plan to catch this year’s MPW videos in my pajamas as I work on the book I am writing and help my son with his SAT prep. Powerful? Who knows. Happy? Definitely.
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