Why Powerful Women are Scary: A Conversation with Dr. Robin Buckley

MM: You are a TEDx speaker and you travel around the country giving talks, one of which is called “Why Powerful Women are Scary.” What inspired you to delve into this topic?

RB:To put it simply, the idea behind this talk was based on frustration. A lot of my clients are incredibly intelligent, hard working, inspiring women. I get the privilege of listening to their genesis stories and how they’ve evolved, and yet the consistent theme that comes up in so many of the stories is around barriers. They get told they’re too young or too old. They’re asked about their plans to be moms or why they aren’t having kids. They are judged when they leave work to care for children or elderly parents. They are told to dress certain ways in order to fit in. They are often described as bossy, aggressive, emotional. And all this might be okay if their male counterparts experienced the same, which of course doesn’t happen. They fight every day for a seat at the table, for equal pay, and to be treated as the talented professionals they are. Then during one session, a client said, “I don’t understand. I’m as educated and skilled as the men around me, but somehow their power is admired and mine is squashed. Why do I still have to prove myself?” The frustration and exhaustion in her voice haunted me for a few weeks until I started researching and teasing out the variables which contribute to the idea of powerful women being a problem rather than a benefit. When I get the opportunity to share this topic in a room of women, or allies who support women, it normalizes the experience and let’s women know it’s not just them experiencing this. More importantly, the talk offers ways to push back and retain power as women.

MM: As you know, I work with trailblazers who are also powerful women. Based on your own personal and professional experiences, what does it mean to be a powerful woman?

RB: That one’s easy – unapologetically asking and working towards what you want. This seems too simplistic, right? But women are taught to squelch their wants, to always put others before themselves, and to be the caregivers. So to ask for what you want takes incredible power because you are fighting against societal, cultural, and possibly familial stereotypes and norms which are ingrained in our DNA. From there, a powerful woman determines the steps necessary to achieve her want and works towards that goal. If she’s fully in her power, she shares her want with others, but not with the expectation that they will do the work for her. Instead by sharing with others she allows herself to be transparent and, potentially, have other people participate or support her in her work towards the goal. She doesn’t try to take it on by herself because she “doesn’t want to burden” others, another unnecessary societal tenet. She allows others to see her and if they choose to help, a powerful woman allows and appreciates the support.

MM: Why are powerful women scary?

RB: In the 1920s through 1950s, roles for women and men were distinctly defined within society. People found comfort in knowing what to expect based upon the societal norms, and cognitive dissonance was low. The standard for women was as the weaker sex, more nurturing, passive, quiet, group members rather than leaders. As the 20th century evolved, the traditional societal definitions of women began to change. Women began organizing movements, going to college, taking on leadership positions. What women were doing did not align with the societal standards or scripts that society was comfortable with, and this created cognitive discomfort.

As the standard for strong women becomes more commonplace, it has become less acceptable to voice this discomfort. That doesn’t mean it goes away. Instead, these biases become covert rather than overt, sometimes without those who hold the biases realizing it. Those people know it is less acceptable to verbalize or have these biases, so they shove them down. They don’t say them out loud, but the biases still influence their reactions to strong women. They are uncomfortable because the covert biases are influencing their subconscious thinking.

MM: We benefit from the progress of generations that have gone before us. They did not know us, but they imagined us. Tell us about an influential trailblazer or powerful woman in your life and what you learned from them.

RB: Ah, that would be Dr. Leona Lobell. I met Leona in 2003 when I was scheduled to teach my first week-long doctoral residency, with her as my very experienced mentor. And I was intimidated before I even met her. Everyone told me how professional she was. The extensive experience she had in New York’s publishing world. How intelligent she was. And when I met her, Leona’s regal appearance – from her perfectly placed bun to her designer shoes – added to my intimidation.

My confidence was also on edge because of a secret I was hiding…I was 2 months pregnant with my first child. I hadn’t told anyone because, in the very male dominated world of higher education, I was afraid they wouldn’t let me do the residency, something I had worked hard to get for two years. Honestly, I thought they’d consider my pregnancy a weakness or a liability to the success of the residency, so I kept it a secret.

The first day of the residency was brutal. It was a 9-hour day, in front of incredibly intelligent, demanding doctoral students, and mostly on my feet. I was nauseous and exhausted by the end of the day, and I felt like Leona was watching me the whole time, and I was right. At the end of the day, she waited until the students were gone and she pulled me aside. In her elegant, articulate way, she confronted me, gently. “Robin, is there something going on that I can help you with?” With that one question, I burst out in tears and ended up telling her my secret. I fully expected to get a call that night, telling me not to show up the next day.

But then I got to experience all of Dr. Leona Lobell. For the rest of the residency, she managed to balance working with me as a trusted colleague and taking care of me like a daughter. Instead of standing the whole time as was her practice, she sat a lot more, which made me sit more. She reminded me to drink water and eat dry crackers during breaks. She dismissed me early at the end of the day, wrapping up the Q&A with students on her own so I could go home to rest. She nurtured me, professionally and personally, that week and from then on, and became my lifetime mentor and friend.

Leona’s wisdom, her advice, and perspectives on life and on career, go through my mind at least once a month. I would not be the woman I am today without her. But on the day I met her, I could’ve continued to buy into the traditional model of leadership. I could’ve remained on my own, not connecting, not being authentic, following a traditional definition of what it means to be strong, because that is what I learned a leader should do. Instead, Leona taught me the value of trusting other women, and allowing their strength to strength me, and vice versa. She showed me the importance of humanity in leadership. It’s funny. She’s died a few years ago, and yet whenever I tell this story, it’s like I can hear her words as strong now as they were then.

MM: What is your advice for trailblazing women who want to make social change?

RB: There are four suggestions I offer women regarding changing the norms and building a new model for female leaders and trailblazers.

First, create your own model of power or leadership. Most models regarding these concepts are based on traditionally masculine traits and many women try to adopt them as their own ways of doing things — whether superficially in terms of wearing more conservative, almost masculine, clothing, or interpersonally in terms of behaving in ways that aren’t who they genuinely are. I remember realizing this in a group conversation with colleagues. In this case, I was the only woman and the men in the group were older than me by 20 to 30 years. It was a spirited, respectful debate and the group was loud. They kept interrupting

and talking over each other which isn’t my style. But I wanted to be heard. I could either adopt their approach, raise my voice and force my way in, or try my own way. Essentially being an introvert and being comfortable with physical touch as a way to appropriately connect with others, I positioned myself next to one of the loudest of the group, waited until he was about to interject a comment, and gently put my hand on his forearm. He stopped, turned to look at me, and I began to speak in my normal tone. Without his voice jumping in, there was a pause in the group and I used the moment to share my thoughts. I got my point out, and then the group started up again, but with noticeably less volume. I decided to continue the experiment and kept moving subtly around the group, using a touch on an arm whenever I wanted to share my ideas. What was funny was I actually ended up using classical conditioning to control the situation; over time, when I moved next to someone talking, they’d stop talking even without me using physical touch. I used my strengths intentionally, and my behavioral knowledge unintentionally, to make space for my voice.

When you do this, you demonstrate that the way leadership was done in the past is not the only option. Then, you can use your model of leadership to look for opportunities to lead. Women’s voices are significantly underrepresented in leadership. While women make up 51% of the American population, we only hold 28% of the seats on Congress and 31% of statewide elected officials…and of course, 0% of Presidents. On corporate boards, only 29% of the seats are held by women. And in my industry, only 1/3 of speakers at events and conferences are women. So whether it’s in politics, or on boards, or speaking to large groups, locally or globally, our perspectives, experiences and opinions are underrepresented. When you create your model of leadership, you can then decide to identify and go after leadership positions to give balance to the voices heard on platforms which make decisions. Because those voices are making decisions for our lives so why wouldn’t we make sure our voices are part of those decisions?

Second, to be a powerful woman, challenge outdated perspectives and define what you want. To do this, we can choose to stop musterbating. This term refers to the tendency to “must” yourself regularly. “I must do this” or “I have to do that” or “I should do this.” Rather than approaching your life from the perspective of shoulds, have to’s, need to’s, and musts, words which create pressure, stress, and guilt, you get to reframe your thinking to what you want by changing the statement to either “want” or “will”. By saying what you want, or what you will do, and working towards that goal, you regain your power and your choice. You flourish as your authentic, powerful self. Your energy increases. Your focus is heightened. You become more satisfied and happy. You articulate yourself as a priority alongside the other important people in your life, instead of behind them. This isn’t about saying “me first”. It’s simply saying, “Me too” and you change the paradigm of women as givers-to-others, to a new norm of women as givers to self and others. This isn’t selfish. Essentially, selfish is when we expect others to do the work for us, or when we ask others to change who they are. If we simply and clearly state what we want and what we will do to achieve that want, that isn’t selfish. That’s self-sustaining.

The third suggestion to thrive and grow as a powerful woman is to see other women as supports rather than as competition. There is plenty of success to go around and by building networks and connections, things that most women are good at doing, it can create opportunities and experiences. The women I admire most are women who do this, who don’t subscribe to the stereotypes of women being “backstabbing” or “catty”. By helping other women achieve their goals, our power and influence as women grows personally and globally. This also includes supporting the next generation of women. This can be done in so many ways — teaching, mentoring, sharing knowledge, donating money or time to organizations which empower younger women. This is something that resonates so strongly with me. One of my passions is education and while I don’t formally teach anymore, I try to increase knowledge through writing. I self-published a book several years ago based on a qualitative survey with one question, “What is the one piece of advice you’d give to a girl on the verge of adulthood?” It was published a month before the 2016 Presidential election. The day after the election, I received a call from a former colleague who I’d only stayed in touch with via Facebook. She was calling to share a story with me regarding her teenage daughter. 

The story started in a similar way for most mothers. That morning her daughter was late coming downstairs, ready to go to school. My colleague was frustrated and went upstairs ready for a confrontation. She went into her daughter’s bedroom, and saw her daughter sitting on the floor, with her back to the door. Instead of unleashing on her daughter, my colleague sensed something was wrong. She moved around to look at her daughter and saw my book in her daughter’s lap. When her daughter looked up, she was crying. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially her daughter said that the news of the election was not what she had hoped for, and she had been scared of what it meant for women and girls. But then she picked up my book and started reading the words from people all around the world. She told her mom that it made her realize that there were people in the world, people she didn’t even know, that loved and cared about girls. The girl went on to say that reading those words helped her feel like it would be okay. This story still blows me away when I retell it. The idea that through the words of women and allies – strangers to this girl – she gained the awareness that there are people in the world who care for women and in that moment, her power was reestablished.

Finally, if we want to flourish as powerful women and establish social change, we can choose to stop believing the lie of having it all that society has pushed on us. You cannot have it all. It’s not something most women want to hear but it is a concept to embrace with the disclaimer. You cannot have it all, all at the same time. We’ve been duped by a society that talks about a work-life balance and let’s think about this. How on Earth can you have a balance in all the different roles in your life? Balance means equal, and when we reference “work-life balance” that implies that each area of your life, each role you have, has an equal amount of your energy and focus every day. That isn’t possible all at the same time.

Your time, energy, and focus can be represented as a pie chart. The whole pie is 100% and each day your activities are divided within this pie. Trying to give 100% to your career, and 100% to your kids and those you care for, and 100% to your relationship, and 100% to your community work, and 100% to your self-care, every day is a mathematical impossibility. This leads to burnout, failure, and undermines our power as women.

What you can have is work-life harmony. Your roles and different parts of your life can exist harmoniously if you choose to reject the belief that you can and should do it all, equally, every day. Some days you give more time to your relationship and less on your work tasks. Some days your kids or pets get more of your energy, and less is given to your friends. Because you know there are other days when the ratios will be different.

Supporting your own and other women’s choices on how to devote their time, how to prioritize without self or others’ judgment, and how to make decisions which may not be traditional encourages the new societal norm for powerful, trailblazing women.

Flipping the script.  Dr. Robin asked a couple questions of her own.

RB: What would you add to that list of advice, Michelle?

MM:  Make friends with dreams and fear.  Trailblazers are dreamers with a pragmatic side.  They envision what the world could be and they strategize the steps to make the change a reality.  However, fear is a necessary companion because they create a path through the jungle.  Their brains sense risk because they don’t know what obstacles await them.  Powerful women expect the fear to show up when they try something new, speak up, and dare to live their lives according to their own rules.  The fear is a sign that they are doing the damn thing.  

RB: I’d love to hear about a powerful woman from your life.

MM:  It’s no secret that I am a tennis fan.  Each time that I watch a singles tennis match, I get a lesson in mindset excellence.  Players do not receive coaching during tennis matches and there’s no one to talk with.  The player makes choices and performs in isolation in front of thousands of viewers. It’s awe-inspiring for me, and Billie Jean King ranks as one of my favorites because of so much more than her record.  

King broke barriers throughout her career.  She defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973.  She campaigned relentlessly for equal pay throughout her career beginning in 1968 using creative strategies, including boycotts.  King eventually mentored the next generation of tennis stars who continued the fight for pay equity, including Venus Williams who was the first female to win equal prize money at Wimbledon.  Billie Jean King helped form the Women’s Tennis Association and has been involved in the women’s rights movement, civil rights, and LGBTQIA+ rights for her whole adult life.  Billie Jean King walks right into whatever is hard because she prioritizes the impact over the backlash.  She shows up and speaks up which means that she also rocks the boat.  That’s my kind of trailblazer. 

One of my favorite Billie Jean quotes is “Everyone thinks women should be thrilled when we get crumbs, and I want women to have the cake, the icing, and the cherry on top too.”  Agreed.

Click HERE to learn more about Dr. Robin’s TEDx talk.

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