The Female Power Boost

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Have women redefined the notion of power?

“Never underestimate the power of a woman.” Canadian social activist Nellie McClung uttered those words nearly a century ago. So true then and even truer today. Powerful women dominate the media today, For example, since 2004, Forbes magazine has annually published the ‘World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’ list. The women are chosen using a complex metric of scores involving money, media and impact, but the very existence of the list generates a number of provocative questions, namely, what is power? Furthermore, are there gender differences in the definition? Does a woman’s access to power differ from a man’s? And why is there even a separate list for women?

Three powerful women offer insight: Former Illinois Congresswoman, and now president of The Executives’ Club of Chicago, Melissa Bean; ComEd President/CEO Anne Pramaggiore; and Sheila Bair, senior advisor,Pew Charitable Trusts and the former head of the FDIC.

So what exactly is power? Ms. Bean defines power as the influence one has to move toward positive outcomes. Ms. Pramaggiore sees power as a movement, too. “It’s the ability to change things and get something done,” she explains. “Powerful people who impress me are those with a mission to change minds or move the ball forward.”

Ms. Bair (who’s made the Forbes list twice: in 2010 at No. 2 and in 2011, as she likes to recount, at No. 15 behind Lady Gaga) agrees that power, movement and change are connected. “There are people with power but they don’t know how to use it,” she observes. “Others have very little power but, because of how they comport themselves, they’re able to make change happen.”

Defining power is one thing, but what happens to it when the gender card is played? Doesn’t America need to maximize all her human capital, regardless of gender, to compete in an ever-changing world? These women have definite opinions on that subject.

Ms. Bair feels that since women are a bit more timid, they don’t traditionally exert power through confrontation. “You can’t over generalize, but I think women tend to have more compassion,” she continues. “They may be more restrained by ethical standards and have more of a tendency to think independently of the groupthink, since traditionally, we’ve been left out.”

Rosemary Fanti Illustration

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About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a graduate of Michigan State University who's written nearly two decades worth of newspaper and magazine articles and has published three books. Her biography of Virginia Hall, Wolves at the Door: the True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, has been optioned for a movie. Her most recent book, It’s Just Hair: 20 Essential Life Lessons, is a 2012 International Book Award finalist. Ms. Pearson is also the founder of Courage Concepts, an organization that cultivates courage in women and provides workshops/keynotes for corporations and other organizations.