Power relationships between men and women are a delicate topic because not all workplaces are characterized by a level playing field. These power relationships can pertain to different positions, such as between a male executive and a female subordinate, and they can have different sources, like an advantage in knowledge or expertise. The fact that men and women are equal has become an accepted fact by many; however, the reality is that power relationships between women and men in the workplace do exist and continue to be unequally distributed.
Different Types of Power in the Workplace
In 1959, social psychologists Bertram Raven and John R.P. French defined the five sources of social power: legitimate, referent, expert, reward and coercive power. If you'd like to develop a better understanding of the power relationships you are in, take a moment to identify the basis of power that characterizes your relationship with a man at work. Another possible form of your power relationship is informational power -- a male colleague might have more information than you and therefore have an advantage. Network power can be problematic if nepotism is widespread in a company; male employees are well-connected to their male friends in management positions.
Men's Power in Organizations
Unequal power relationships are particularly evident in workplaces where men hold management or supervisory positions more often than women. According to the non-profit organization, Catalyst, women held only 14% of leadership positions in the Fortune 500 companies in 2012. Because of this ratio, men often hold legitimate or positional power over women. In every workplace you can find complex patterns of power relationships. For example, your direct male supervisor, who holds legitimate power over you, might also have coercive power because he can force you to fulfil tasks you otherwise wouldn't.
Managing Power Relationships
Another type of power, personal power, often generates problems between men and women in the workplace because of the typically male characteristics associated with it. In chapter seven of "Doing Leadership Differently," Professor Amanda Sinclair of the University of Melbourne explains that personal power can be derived from charisma, reputation, toughness, judgment, confidence, endurance and physical stamina. If your male colleague is rather incompetent but holds personal power in your office, the best way to deal with it is to befriend him and let him know you're on his side, even if you're not. Going against him could potentially worsen your relationship with other colleagues.
Women in Leadership Positions
You should also be aware that, when you're in a leadership position, your male colleagues might try to undermine your legitimate power, which some men have been known to use sexual harassment to accomplish. In 2012, sociologists of the University of Minnesota and the University of Maine found in a study that female supervisors are more likely to report sexual harassment and define their undermining experiences in the workplace as such. In a situation like this, always keep in mind that your male colleagues might not be able to cope well with the fact that they have a female supervisor who has more power than them.
- The Bases of Social Power; John R. P. French and Bertram Raven.
- Catalyst.org: Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace.
- Doing Leadership Differently: Gender, Power and Sexuality in a Changing Business Culture; Amanda Sinclair, PhD.
- American Sociological Review: Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power.
Dr. Andrea S. Dauber has been writing since 2008. Her areas of expertise are personal and career development. She has published everything from scholarly articles to book chapters. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Mainz, Germany. As a certified professional and career coach, she coaches clients and conducts workshops at universities.