Power is the ability to trust ourselves, not doubt ourselves, and speak up for what matters most to us. Yet when we women want to use our voices for good, we’re often told we’re being irrational, risk averse, or overly emotional. Competitive systems often punish people who speak up on behalf of others as if they are an enemy to competitive goals — and this happens all too often to women. It’s treatment that causes us to stay silent and second-guess ourselves. Not only do we suffer, but those around us suffer as well.
These days, however, that’s coming to an end. We have proof that an exclusive diet of competitive reasoning threatens collective safety — and more women are speaking up and refusing to doubt themselves. Greta Thunberg stated she’d “had it with politicians.” Whistleblower Frances Haugen went public with evidence of short-sighted algorithms that prioritize growth only to threaten social trust. Increasingly, women are using their own power. And it’s in the stories we tell that we see how refusing to stay silent and reclaim our voices makes such a difference.
Take the story of Robin — a woman and a homeowner who stood up to the local power company’s chainsaws and misguided plan — and saved a stand of trees. When the power company arrived one day to cut back her trees, insisting they were in the way of the power lines and causing a hazard, she refused to allow it. As she pointed out to them, the hazard was due to the poles, which caused the line to lean into the trees: If they straightened out the poles, the problem would be solved. But the company only had one solution: cut the trees. That’s what their internal cost/benefit analysis showed would be cheaper.
Robin’s initial attempts to reason with them fell flat: the workmen called her difficult and irrational, and said she was getting in the way and costing the company money. So she did get in the way: she climbed the first tree they were about to cut, and she stayed there until they gave up. The standoff she created soon brought a cadre of company executives to her driveway to explain to her why she was wrong.
But Robin trusted her own perspective. She knew what she knew, and she didn’t let them erode that simple clarity. When each executive showed up, she took him to see the crooked poles so he could see the bigger picture for himself. Ultimately, she prevailed. Instead of cutting the trees, the company straightened the poles.
Robin’s story is a telling example of the power struggles that occur as competitive systems increasingly threaten collective wellbeing. It was far better to keep the trees intact and straighten the poles — for everyone’s sake, for safety’s sake, and for the climate’s sake. Women have been trained to ignore their own bigger-picture point of view, despite their strong sense of what had to be done — and to give into company cost/benefit ratios. But more than ever, we need our power to speak out. Here are five strategies to perservere — for our good, and for the collective good:
Trust your ability to reason.
Women tend to monitor a wider circle of wellbeing than competitive systems consider reasonable. As a result, competitive “every man for himself” systems go on the attack — they see efforts to protect wellbeing as an unreasonable forfeiture of organizational wins. When you encounter so-called solutions that threaten to cause harm, trust what you see. When you get described as unreasonable, double down and keep the faith in your ability to see better solutions.
Those who depend on control tactics (power-over), tend to interpret collaborative methods (power-with) as a loss of control. While this may be technically true, forging mutual agreement is so much more reliable than using control tactics. But collaborative strategies that trade power-over to gain power-with are often portrayed as a slippery slope to powerlessness. Gaslighting a woman who seeks power-with for being difficult threatens her confidence on purpose. Once you know it is coming, it is far easier to see that being difficult is actually a badge of honor.
Stick to your own narrative.
What looks rational within a collaborative narrative often looks irrational from a competitive point of view. Yet unchecked competitive narratives make up all kinds of rational reasons to over-exploit both resources and people. Exploiting every opportunity (trees one day, people the next) inevitably leads to abusive patterns. If we don’t pursue collective wins as well as cost/benefit wins, we will never moderate the cult of greed that’s encouraged by competitive narratives with no mechanism to determine how much winning is too much.
Prioritize a moral win.
Robin made no apologies for prioritizing a moral win over a competitive win. Gaslighters peddle the lie that one can’t manage what can’t be measured, threatening our ability to preserve the incalculable value of nature and diversity. In real life, the opposite is true. It is the things we can’t measure that must be carefully managed. Those who fear that pursuing moral wins might weaken control have not yet accepted that coercive tactics fail to protect natural systems. We need the power of moral emotions to fuel moral choices. Otherwise, no one thinks it is his job to save the trees.
Construct a shared frame of reference.
Using technology to keep score of even the tiniest wins and losses exposes the limitations of competitive systems. Too much competition distracts us from protecting people and resources. But Robin didn’t try to tell the executives they were wrong. Instead, she helped them see a bigger picture they couldn’t deny. She walked them around to have a look for themselves, so their moral instincts could expand their narrowed frame of reference to a wider circle of moral concern.
Jane Goodall pointed out that it “doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.” Being described as “difficult” may even become a sign that we are on the right track: women’s wisdom and our ability to see the bigger picture is a powerful force. It’s well worth protecting.
Every time we can increase the number of people willing to slow down and collaborate, act with generosity, or forfeit a win to avoid harm, we expand the definition of what is rational. Monitoring a bigger picture with multiple narratives may wreck the simplicity of treating life and work like a game, but it reconnects us to the web of relationships required to support meaningful efforts to protect us all.