Strategic influence works differently for women. Here's why.
When I was thinking about what skill makes a huge difference for a success chances of a future female executive, Influencing and persuading others (bosses, employees, peers, investors, clients) immediately came to mind.
I went on to interview potential students and after talking to multiple women, mostly in male-dominated industries, from all levels of seniority across multiple geographies, several common challenges emerged:
1. Establishing credibility and being heard by others
Despite having credentials, experience, domain expertise, and often seniority, women felt they were not being taken seriously by (mostly male) colleagues and their ideas were being appropriated by others.
"Even though I am at a C-Suite level, in meetings my male counterparts often repeat what I am saying in a different way and take credit for my ideas"
"I have a seat at the table but I often feel overpowered by a louder voice (usually male) and many times I will say something / offer solutions and as if no one was listening, someone else (usually male) will say the same thing (sometimes even the same words?) and they will get the credit for the idea. It happens to me over and over"
These women aren't alone. A recent study of Supreme Court justices found that male justices interrupt the female justices approximately three times as often as they interrupt each other during oral arguments. They also found that gender carried 30x more power than seniority in one's chances of being interrupted. Ouch!
2. Seeing influence as a form of "dark art" rather than an essential leadership skill
Women often saw only the negative side of power and avoided engaging in strategies to further their own interests. There was a common belief that being cooperative and collaborative was the right approach and that genuine effort will be recognized. Findings by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever showed that mental barriers about asking for more often prevented women from negotiating for themselves. In fact, they found that men initiated negotiations to advance their own interests about four times as frequently as women. Their HBR article Nice Girls Don't Ask, summarizes some of these findings and the psychological and societal reasons for them. Given that almost all organizations are political and it takes about 20 people on average to take a decision* in a large organization, it seemed that women were not setting themselves up for success by not looking at influence strategically.
*Source: Strategic influence book Art of Woo, by Wharton professor Richard Shell
3. Struggling to find the right temperature for their leadership style
Representation of leadership as a male trait in our society (89% of business school cases feature male protagonists and most business books are written by men and about men) and so few role models gave women very limited examples as to what it meant to be a leader. Being too nice resulted in not being taken seriously or being taken advantage of, and being assertive led to being perceived as aggressive and not likable. This has made projecting authority more complicated for women and left them with less options to exercise their influence. In addition, they often failed to utilize critical feminine skills like listening, empathizing and problem-solving, strategically.
So What's Next?
As I was doing my research for the course, I realized that ALL the books I was referencing about strategic influence were written by men and all the best Ivy League business classes on this topic were also taught by men (almost all white and middle-aged). They had a very male perspective and didn't take into account the challenges above. Sure enough, one case study did have a woman in it: she was Andy Grove's (Intel's CEO) secretary (!!!).
I had to develop my own cases and examples in order to make the concepts more relevant to women's realities.
All this work went into the creation of a global online course: Influence Masterclass for Women. It's a 5-week live course with elements of strategic thinking, emotional intelligence and effective communications.