President's Message - October 2021

Women, Power, and Leadership

Mary McKelvey

WLALA President 2021-2022

“We need women who aren’t afraid of power – who are not afraid of using it.” These words resonated within me long after I heard Supervisor Holly Mitchell utter them earlier this year. Her statement struck something deep within me, invoking both an invitation and a challenge. Her words became the basis for rich discourse during a panel discussion on September 24, 2021 at the annual WLALA Awards Dinner.

That evening, WLALA proudly honored Judge Samantha Jessner with the Ernestine Stahlhut Award, Supervisor Holly Mitchell with the Distinguished Service Award, and Bechtel Corporation (represented by Jessica Jones and Andrea Gross) with the Myra Bradwell Award at Shade Hotel in Redondo Beach. These women addressed and unpacked the dynamics of women, power, and leadership during a discussion in the second half of the evening.

To effectively use power, we must first understand it. Our panelists discussed authentic power and what it is and is not – the important distinction between the traditional “power over” which is mostly fear-driven, and the “power to,” which is more often rooted in inspiration. In a 1968 speech given to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly defined power as the ability to achieve purpose and effect change.

The panelists also explored understanding our “why” in relation to power because this awareness frames how we are likely to exercise it – i.e., why do you want to obtain power? If it is solely about you, then it should come as no surprise that you are more likely to abuse your power. The exercise of true power is more about consensus building, negotiating, and the ability to influence others than it is about exercising dominion and control. Exercising power requires courage, pragmatism, and decisiveness—but all of these require practice, as the value of these attributes are still not highlighted for girls and women.

An examination of power is foundational to any meaningful discussion about leadership. There is no doubt that women are underrepresented in leadership roles, and the two main obstacles to female leadership remain lack of opportunity and lack of confidence. It is the latter that we can and should address now. In the words of Brené Brown, “Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.” More importantly, it is time for women to step up, step over our own false self-imposed limitations, and understand that leadership is learned by leading. We will not do it perfectly and we will absolutely make mistakes along the way. Recognize this for yourself and for other women who need your support.

This is a conversation WLALA is committed to continuing. This year we will explore the things—many institutional—that block women from recognizing and using their power with the goal of encouraging and supporting more women in leadership roles. The world is indeed desperate for female wisdom and female leadership. We have the power to deliver.