When it comes to the gendered imbalance of power in organizations, it’s tempting to look at the people at the top — most often white, able-bodied men — and try to develop the same skills they have in the hope of replicating their ascent.
But in a recent discussion about women and leadership, MIT Sloan researchers and shared alternative avenues women can take to reach the next level of leadership in their careers.
For women, attaining a leadership position is as much about organizational structures as it is about individual skills and sacrifices, said Murray during a webinar hosted by MIT Sloan Executive Education. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it will happen faster if there’s individual, team, and organizational responsibility, and I think this approach also helps distribute some of the energy and effort,” she said.
Here’s a closer look at Murray’s and Johnson’s insights.
Understand the difference between power and influence
Don’t assume that your work will speak for itself when it comes to promotions or being given more responsibility.
“Women need to step up and say, ‘I need that power.’ It’s OK for us to say we want to get our hands on power, because we know we can make a difference once we’ve got it,” said Murray, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship.
The first step in gaining that confidence is to understand the difference between power and influence — and not settle for the latter.
“Influence is what you have to do when you don’t have positional power, when you aren’t the person with the decision rights or the budget,” said Johnson, a senior lecturer on leadership, strategy, and change.
For women who feel uncomfortable striving for power, or in need of an altruistic justification, Johnson recommended reframing the definition of power.
“It’s not power over other people; it’s the power to do things,” Johnson said. “However you need to frame what justifies the acquisition of power, that’s the conversation you need to have.”
Draw energy from yourself and your organization
Don’t be intimidated by the effort required to attain or be effective in a decision-making role.
“It’s very liberating to think about the transformation and to imagine it, to start to talk about it, and then to build toward it,” said Murray, who since 2020 has served as the associate dean of innovation and inclusion at MIT Sloan.
Think about the impact you want to have and why you’re the right person to lead that change effort. That way, you’re not just talking about yourself; you’re talking about the journey you want to take with your team and for your organization — all of which can be energizing and doesn’t have to be an either-or situation, Murray said.
“There’s a sort of ‘and-both’ about bringing members of your team along so that for each ‘next person down’ in the organization, this is slightly less difficult,” Murray said. “I think we can do that both in a way where we give ourselves energy by stepping into some of these positions but we also help reduce the frictions for the next group who come next with us.”
Be thoughtful and deliberate when building a network
Both researchers emphasized the power of a network to help build your career.
“You need other people to advocate and to say, ‘This is the person who should be put into this role,’” Murray said.
That means you need to develop a network. This network might comprise the people in the room making decisions or people with other kinds of expertise that you can use. Or they might be people who give you energy.
“Those networks are important in helping make sure that my work is valued by others when I’m not in the room, to basically establish and remind people that I’ve done great work,” Murray said.
Networks are particularly important for women because of what Johnson called an “overlap problem.” Often, in male senior-manager or executive networks, there’s a lot of professional and personal overlap.
“You can understand immediately why that might be, because the people they choose to hang out with are also — because of the affinity bias — people who look like them, so senior successful men. But that professional and personal overlap tends to be smaller for women,” Johnson said.
That means women need to be even more thoughtful about who they’re giving their time to and whether that relationship is reciprocal, Johnson said. It involves thinking not only about the people you have fun with and make you feel good as a person but also about who will help you think about your career over the next 10 years.
Amplify voices, and let people do their best work
Once you reach a position of power, it’s important to support others in your organization.
This can come in the form of amplifying quieter voices in a meeting or giving credit for an idea that initially didn’t get traction.
It also means encouraging autonomy and letting people do their jobs.
“It’s all about leaders needing to step up and be really clear about what’s expected of people, so that they can then step back and let those other people make decisions and do the work that they ought to be doing,” Johnson said.