Women in Leadership: Challenging Our Perceptions of Power and Politics

Women Talking Together

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard confidently eased into her topic when she addressed a crowded Halifax room at the 2020 International Women’s Day Breakfast. “Use your power to make a difference, leave an imprint, create a legacy. Having power and privilege isn’t a bad thing. It’s what you do with it that matters.” 

The Senator’s comments drew enthusiastic applause but in smaller, more private rooms I hear the opposite from women leaders when the topic is politics and power. “It’s game playing”; “It’s uncouth”, “It’s degrading”, “It’s not who I am”.

Use your power to make a difference, leave an imprint, create a legacy. Having power and privilege isn't a bad thing. It's what you do with it that matters.
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

Wanda Thomas Bernard


Since 2018, I have led leadership workshops for over 250 women where, in an intimate setting, we discuss and uncover answers on how to understand purpose and vision and align that foundation to forge our own career paths. The conversation draws on the experience of various leaders from diverse sectors, career stages, and individual backgrounds.   

The most consistent theme across all groups is a common distaste verging on revulsion for power and politics. The lens is one of competition and rivalry; not of shared interests. If someone has a win it must have been at someone else’s expense. We question motivations at the cost of finding common ground. Until we challenge this mindset, we are unable to challenge the status quo and elevate ourselves and each other.  

In this context – power is about fully owning the unique set of assets each of us holds, the ability to seize opportunity and self-advocate. It’s guilt-free comfort with prioritizing our interests. This includes the best interests of our team, project, business, and pursuit of purpose.  

Politics is deploying both savvy and instinct to navigate hierarchy and decision-making culture directed by these same good intentions. Simply put, it’s knowing how things get done. Often less represented in the distribution of power, women lack influence in how people are treated, how policy is built and how ideas are shaped. To increase our influence requires relationship building and listening skills as well as strategic thinking.   

We often choose to hang back and believe our good work, deep commitment, and quality of contribution will stand up and speak for itself. I know because I subscribed to that belief and many times it served me well but also at times left me unfulfilled and overlooked.    

In their book “The Invisible Rules”, Paul Harrietha and Holly Catalfamo interview 50 Canadian Women Leaders including myself.  It’s a good, crisp read and the message is clear – we will be more effective in combating gender inequity if we can shake self-limiting beliefs and advocate for ourselves. Beliefs that are engrained, socialized and reinforced through our life journeys.     

Harrietha and Catalfama advocate four levers women have at our disposal to make progress up the rock face. Gain credentials, be adaptable, build profile and draw on support. They are on to something.   

Your credentials empower you and set a foundation upon which you extend your expertise and have influence.  

Your adaptability enables you to navigate, negotiate, shift directions, learn, and build collations (retiring the overused “pivot”).    

Building profile is confidently sharing your hard-earned feats and giving voice to your authentic self and perspective - making your contribution visible. This feeds self-respect and in turn nourishes the respect you garner from others. 

And, drawing on support is the humble, honorable act of seeking help and giving help to each other. None of this is distasteful in my books. 

In one workshop I facilitated, a participant shared circumstances in her workplace that required her to “apply for her own job”. She uncharacteristically decided to champion her contribution. Her boss was astounded and admitted to never having known her true accomplishments and worth.    

Why do we wait for a threat like this to stand up for ourselves? Because we fear the perception of our actions, the lens they will be viewed through and possible backlash.   

What to do? Be alive to this topic. Read the book or others. Invest in your leadership development. Notice others who use these levers effectively. Many effective role models are also gracious, thoughtful, and values-based. They know how, when, and why to elegantly exercise their power and influence. Seek advice from such an individual. Try out your own strategies. It may feel clunky, but you’ll get your rhythm. You owe it to yourself.

Catherine J. Woodman
Catherine J. Woodman, APR, ICD.D

Catherine Woodman is a respected C-Suite level business advisor with deep leadership experience across private, public, and non-profit sectors.