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[OPINION] Women and power

We have an unstable relationship with power. This is ordinarily attributed to living in a patriarchal society where girls and boys are not raised as equals. However, the idea of the princess and the knight on horse in shining armour syndrome is being interrupted by a generation of free thinkers. The status quo that leaves us with inequality is being turned on its head and it is uncomfortable for most, especially for some women.

Our roles have been deliberately set up to promote inequality, less than and more than. This also impacts the raising of boys. From too young boys are expected to man up, take charge, show no emotion unless its strength, power and domination. This leaves us raising a society of men who have not been nurtured but indoctrinated.

Many men grow into big boys with low to zero emotional quotients (EQ). This shows up as their inability to use words to communicate rather than aggression. Leadership qualities include all the skills society sees as soft. These are generally human-centred skills which have to be taught from childhood. They include listening to hear, not to respond, being empathetic - which is not a feminine trait but a leadership essential - having clear boundaries and being able to say no when it is the responsible thing to do. For boys, it starts in our homes, in the streets where they play or the school grounds where they are encouraged to “be one of the boys”, “don’t be a nerd”, “don’t be a goody two shoes” or “a mommy’s boy! They take on roles which are not their true identity, but they adapt to the pressure of a society which is unfair and unjust. This has been a generational barrier to raising more men who lead and approach problems and the solution including a context and not just an outcome.

Traditionally where moms and dads are present, the head of the house is assumed to be the male. Where that father figure has not had a balanced, empowering and conscious upbringing, the cycle continues without question or options. An inclusive upbringing can defuse frustrations, dysfunction and the irreparable damage inflicted on boys and girls in their homes.

Having grown up in a home with both our parents and three sisters, I am so late in my life realising that our luck was that we never had defined roles as girls and boys. The chores had to be divided fairly and we were mostly left to work that out ourselves. If anything was heavy and had to be carried there wasn’t an expectation that the strongest of us would do it, we had to work together to get it sorted out. When the dogs had to be bathed and their mess cleaned out of the garden, we had to do it. If the car had to be washed between us (though we did turn it into a production!) we did it and made it fun (after lots of moaning). Had there been a boy among us, I guess we would have perpetuated patriarchy.

Our parents sent us to a private all-girls’ school. It was during apartheid so we were allowed in on a permit from the government as coloured girls to a predominantly white school. Here the playing fields were levelled in real terms for us. Firstly, at an all-girls school in the 1970s you were told you could be a nurse or a doctor. More importantly for us as individuals, knowing we were “allowed” in on a permit, our parents made it clear to us that we were there as equals, even if as classmates we were different to each other. We were under no obligation, with permission from our parents, to “fit in”. If we made friends, fantastic. If not, we had a large circle of friends and family at home and where we lived. Starting at the school was a piece of cake with that backing from our parents. We got a great education and made lifelong friends.

Through all this as girls and sisters we were taught at home that we were enough, as we were and as we weren’t. We were exposed to many women and men role models. At home our parents were a safe place, our protectors and mostly our father was consultative. We could debate, ask questions and though our parents would make the final decision, we felt seen and understood. Even though we often did not get our way, we got the lessons. The role of our mother was a stay-at-home mom. She saw to all our needs, physical, emotional and practical. She prioritised our father and did not neglect us. So patriarchy was also alive and well where we grew up and there was a pecking order, dad, mom and then us.

However, a little-known fact was that though our mother played the traditional role, she was smart, opinionated, logical and did not stand back. I respected how she juggled her roles. I realised very late and proudly what an enormous influence she had on our father. My aha moment followed hearing this joke. “In our house my father makes all the big decisions and my mother makes all the small decisions”. (Waits for gasps or agreement!) The punch line: “My mother also decides what a big and what a small decision is!”

In a world where men are treated as smarter than women, stronger than women, more capable than women, more reliable than women, we have to be smart, strong, capable, reliable and show up that way continuously. We teach people how to treat us.

We choose who we are in the world, at work, in our homes and communities. Our choice is to do this powerfully. Our choice is to recreate how power looks for us. There are so many opportunities to test-drive the power you have, if you are prepared to practice and learn from each opportunity. It is possible to be powerful without force, without loudness, without blame, without contestation and it is powerful to set for yourself an audacious, bold and courageous path to capture the power you had all along. It is there.

Take the time to identify female role models, look at the pattern of behaviours that helped them get recognition and acceptance as a leader to be seen, heard and supported. Most of the lady leaders I admire have had to do the work themselves. They had to make a choice to be power, be brave, be courage, be vulnerable, be smart, be inclusive and be change. Once we know how our power looks, we can dress it up and take it out on stage. The stage of your life where your starring roles are multiples of executive, mom, sister, child-free, lesbian, singleton, widow, divorcee, friend or partner. Our power is that we multitask because we choose it even when we have no choice.

I recently heard Sheryl Sandberg ask: “When last have you heard anyone asking a man ‘How do you do it all?’” It was rhetoric. My opinion is that if we can do it all, let’s own our processes powerfully with love and consistency. We teach people how to treat us, so practice.

So, straighten your crown, saddle up that horse and shed the armour so that you are ready to step into your power and shine.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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