Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Gender and Self-Perceptions of Social Power

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Gender and Self-Perceptions of Social Power

Article excerpt

Using data from undergraduates we found that financial resources, intelligence and having responsibility were important sources of social power. Consistent with traditional gender norms, women were more likely than were men to perceive social power from emotional intimacy, social skills and parenting. Men were more likely than were women to perceive having a lot of social power due to physical strength and social status. Unexpected was that more men than women chose sexuality as a source of power. An awareness of gender stratification was found in the reports that "women in general" do not have a lot of social power and women were more likely than were men to say that "men in general" had a lot of social power.

Social power has personal, interpersonal, and social structural dimensions. It can be viewed as an outcome, a process, or a personality feature. Perceptions about social power have implications for how individuals situate themselves vis-à-vis others. In order to exercise power, women (and men) must be able to perceive themselves as having it. It does not matter how many resources or skills someone has if s/he does not incorporate these into his/her identity. The Thomas theorem informs us that defining something as real is real in its consequences (Thomas & Thomas, 1928). Thus, ultimately, our perceptions are our reality. In this study we examined what women and men see as sources of social power for themselves and to what extent they perceive themselves to be powerful. Perceptions of power are influenced by culture and in the last three decades the United States has experienced social changes that suggest growing equity between women and men. We investigated whether or not sources of social power differ by gender and whether or not they are consistent with traditional gender norms.



Few would challenge the important role that power plays in our lives, regardless of how we define it. Often camouflaged, often derided, but almost always coveted, power has been part of the human drama from time immemorial. Social thinkers make the assumption that all human beings have a need and desire to wield some sort of influence or to resist being influenced - in essence, they want to be powerful. The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, believed that humans are driven by the "will to power," that all human beings are driven to be agents of action and change (Nietzsche, 1967). In her book, Feminist Fatale, Kamen (1991) discusses the difficulties and hard work that accompany the "obliteration of myths" and the "building of social consciousness and sisterhood" and asks if it is worth the effort and struggle. Why do we want to do it? The answer, she says, is power! According to Lipman-Blumen (1984), the need for power and control is rooted in the uncertainty of life which creates existential anxiety that we try to allay either by gaining power for ourselves or by aligning ourselves with powerful beings.

Thus, power is an integral part of social life. It is a feature of all social systems, large and small. Its presence or absence can make all the difference in whether or not we pursue and achieve the goals we may set for ourselves and others. Further, it is an important factor in the state of our mental health. When people feel helpless and powerless, they often experience depression and are vulnerable to many kinds of physical and emotional diseases (Lauer & Lauer, 2000), which may interfere with living healthy, productive lives.

Because power is part of most social interactions but manifests itself in various ways, many definitions and related concepts have been offered. On the simplest level, power refers to "the capacity to produce a change" in our own thoughts or feelings, or in our relationships, or in a larger more public arena such as politics (Miller, 1991, p. 38). A more narrow definition refers to power as the ability of one party in a relationship to influence the behavior of the other party (Cohen, 1959, p. …

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