9 Aug 2023

Women want a different kind of power than men

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 9 August 2023

Could redefining our concept of power encourage women to pursue the very top jobs?

In their new book The Power Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman reveal that while men tend to seek power over people and resources, women see more value in the kind of power that puts egos aside.

“Something that is hierarchical and domineering in nature just isn't very appealing for women ... what you're getting is a kind of clash of sensibilities when it gets to the top of the pyramid," Kay tells Jesse Mulligan.

Katty Kay (L) and Claire Shipman

Katty Kay (L) and Claire Shipman Photo: supplied

Curious about whether something about the pursuit of power itself is off-putting to women, Kay and Shipman's suspicions were confirmed by recent research.

"Research out of Harvard shows that women think the costs of getting power are too high. Because we have lots of other things we want to do with our life, more so than men do.”

Generally, power as a zero-sum game doesn't appeal to women, Kay says.

“Something that is hierarchical and domineering in nature just isn't very appealing for women. And I think that's what you're getting is a kind of clash of sensibilities when it gets to the top of the pyramid.”

Kay and Shipman's research suggested that women are more motivated by the impact of power than by attaining power for its own sake: “What's the why of power? What's the purpose of power? What are you going to do with that power?”

Around the world, just ten percent of CEOs are women and less than ten percent of countries are run by women, Kay says, and it's not because they're less capable of leadership.

“If we could present women with something that allows them to have an impact, there is real joy in that. The women leaders we interview have real joy in the way they change their organisations for the better or impact their teams for the better, or their communities, or their countries in terms of female politicians.

“That [reframing] makes power something that is worth aspiring to. Because there's no way that women aren't capable of this. We're better educated than men, we have more degrees, we have more postgraduate degrees, we have more PhDs now in America than men.”

Women tend to be promoted based on their performance while men are promoted on the basis of promise, she says.

“We have the evidence in the book, it's all data-driven. We speak to the leaders who have recognised this in companies, that men are promoted on the basis of what their potential is, whereas women have to have actually already jumped through all of the hoops. Well, that in itself makes it much harder. Women are expected to be much more perfect than men.”

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Photo: Penguin Random House

The old adage that power corrupts applies less to women than it does to men, Kay says.

“Women are up to 80 percent less likely to be charged with corruption when they're in leadership positions than men are around the world.

“So power does not seem to corrupt women in the same way. Maybe it is because women are more focused on the why of power, on what they can do with power on how they can improve organisations and companies and countries, perhaps more than men are.”

Kay says she and Shipman were surprised to discover the extent to which home life puts a brake on women taking up positions of power.

“It became pretty clear quite quickly that women are never going to get power outside of the home, unless we do something about our power relationships inside the home.”

The burden of domestic chores still primarily falls upon women, she says.

“A man in America who does not have a job does less housework than a woman who has a full-time job ... Men are doing more than they used to do, but they're not doing half.”

Men are also disadvantaged by this power imbalance, Kay says.

“Men are kind of in a box. Men's options are actually much narrower than women's.

“Women today, we can work full time, we can work part-time, we can work not at all and raise children.

“All of that is socially acceptable. Our research shows that it's still really only socially acceptable for men to be breadwinners, it's very hard for men to break out of that mould.”