Below Hannah Lewis, former intern at Criterion Institute delves into some of the central themes from a 2013 Convergence conversation about stories of power with a gender lens in the  finance world. She outlines basic scenarios that one might face related to gender and power dynamics, and then lets you decide what to do next. Check out her piece to find out how you maneuver a gendered identity in finance. 

Power Plays: Scenarios from “Stories of Power”

By Hannah Lewis

While working as an intern at Criterion, I’ve learned that we must address questions of power to change the rules in the finance world. But it wasn’t until I listened to a conversation from Convergence XII, entitled “The Power of a Gendered Identity in Investing,” that I connected on a more personal level with what it meant to navigate power and a gendered identity in finance. During this talk, participants shared their stories about how power happens—whether at the main table, in the margins, or leveraged somewhere in-between. Attendees told narratives about having to engage with gendered power dynamics, fight for visibility, or make their gender identity invisible. They debated when it was necessary to play the gender card or not. From this conversation emerged an array of situations about addressing power from a gendered perspective.

Although I have never had to address my own gender identity in finance, some of the stories I heard resonated with my own experiences as a woman, sister, and female university student. Listening to these compelling and personal narratives, I tried to imagine myself in the place of these participants—making difficult decisions, taking risks, and determining the extent of my power at the table. The following scenarios are drawn from common situations I recognized in the stories told by participants. I hope they might give you a sense of what its like to maneuver a gender identity in finance.

Scenario 1: At The Table

You are at the table of a board meeting of a powerful company or foundation. You are the only female board member. As the sole woman, you must now decide what your gender role will be.

Will you use your place at the table to advocate for increased diversity in your organization and those you work with? Might you encourage the group to give grants to women-run organizations? Or will this bother the other members and single you out as “that woman” who is constantly promoting other females? Could taking on a gendered role discredit your position or put other board members on edge? Or would you be using your power for good, promoting a gendered view that others at the table simply do not see? What are the risks and benefits of drawing attention to gender with your powerful position at the table?

The meeting begins. This is a wealthy foundation, so you are handed a list of potential grantees for non-profits. Not one of these organizations is run by a woman or provides services to women. Do you:

a)     Say something. Since you’re at the table, you’re going to ask where the women are on this list. Not one of these other members seems to have noticed that 50.8% of the U.S. population is not represented here. This is not okay, and you want to fix this. Maybe the others are simply unaware that there are no women in this picture.

b)    You point out the lack of diversity to an enlightened male colleague during the next coffee break. Hopefully he’ll take on the role of your ally and raise the issue. You’ll just be the invisible instigator behind his words.

c)     Just let it be. These potential grantees have already been researched and selected. You’re still trying to establish your presence at this table. You do not want lose your power by being known as “the woman problem,” always bringing up issues about women, diversity, and gender.

Scenario 2: The All-Exclusive Question

Maybe you’re on an all-female board for an organization that promotes women’s health rights. Or you’ve started a women only  angel investment group. So why do your male colleagues keep asking you why they aren’t able to join?

Being in a group exclusively for women brings up a lot of questions. Is it hypocritical to exclude men from your board or investment group? Does not having men aid the campaign for gender equity or worsen it? How might adding men benefit your group? Would it make it easier for your group to work in the world of finance with a powerful man on-board? Or does it compromise the power of your organization and its identity as being exclusively female? What about all those women who say they just want to be associated with smart angel investors, not a women-only angel fund cohort?

After constant badgering from one of your male colleagues about why he is not allowed to join your angel investment group, you decide to talk with your fellow female members. You think they should:

a)     Tell him sorry, but he cannot join the organization. Your group’s power lies in its identity as a women-only group in the mostly male world of finance. You need to make a name for yourselves without a man involved. There are plenty of co-ed and men-only clubs out there.

b)    Tell him he cannot join now, but possibly sometime in the future. Your group really needs to establish itself before it can consider inviting men on board. But maybe you’ll need someone with his valuable skill sets later on.

c)     You decide to invite him to join. Your group is trying to create change, not increase gender divisions. Having only women, it feels like you’re preaching to the “gender-equity” choir. This man is talented and interested in helping the group succeed. Plus, you all are going to have to engage with a lot of male leaders in big for-profit institutions and might be easier to do so with a man at your table.

Like me, maybe you aren’t a member on the board of a big foundation, nor do you sit at the table of a fancy finance company. You might wonder how these stories of power with a gender lens apply to you.

After listening to these conversations, I’ve started to think about the tables I sit at and the communities I’m a part of. I’ve begun to look at the gender dynamics on my college campus and have become more aware of my gender identity as a female who will soon be entering the workforce. I feel more inspired to promote a gender lens not only in finance, but also in the committees, clubs, and educational institution that I am a member of. I want to seek out more stories and use my newfound understanding to continue to shape my own frames of reference.

So take a look at how gender and its power dynamics influence your life or your run-ins with finance. Seek out more narratives of power related to gender identity that take place in your daily world. How can your understanding of how power happens with a gender lens enlighten the world around you? No matter where you sit or what sort of influence you have, I believe it’s crucial to be aware of the gender dynamics that surround us.

In the Invisible Man by Robert Ellison, the narrator says, “Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”

These stories illuminate our understanding of gender and power and remind us that no one should be invisible. Rather, each of us has a part to play in understanding and overcoming the discrimination that comes with a gendered identity. Ask about other people’s experiences of power with a gender lens. Share your own stories. This is how we can wield our influence and make systems change happen.

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