On Power

I find it funny that the topic of power keeps manifesting itself in one way or another lately.

There are definitely power struggles within Cambodia. On the governmental level, there are top officials who don’t deserve their positions, whether because of nepotism, bribes or a lack of education. On the societal level, there’s the struggle between the rich and the poor, between the educated and the non-educated, between men and women.

This week, I attended a multi-national discussion on women in leadership when the discussion head, an Australian, raised the question, “Do women need to be more authoritative in order to be heard?” She prefaced the thought with the notion that women’s thoughts often aren’t taken seriously because either their physical voice is quieter than a man’s or they tend to put things in more gentle terms.

One participant, a Filipino woman who works with a human trafficking NGO, pointed out that depending on who she is talking to, she exerts various levels of, what would be considered in this context, “authority.” For example, if talking to a western man, she is more direct and to the point, but if talking to an Asian person, she tends to be gentler.

Being a western woman in Cambodia has given me an interesting perspective on this topic. While in the states, I had not reached the point where I felt I was discriminated against because of my gender. Yes, I’ve had to fight some generalizations, “Because you are a girl you like to do X” type of things, but for the most part I’ve never felt my authority or opinions weren’t taken seriously.

Now that I’m in a country where sometimes women are considered second-class citizens, the adjustment of how I must act around people has been interesting. At this point, I still feel like I have a valued opinion, though I’ve had to alter how I approach things. Some people I work closely with are the IT staff (all men, go figure). In general, you have to be pretty persistent with them, but I think I had to be more so. Then they figured out I -- the young girl downstairs -- knew a thing or two about computers (I can talk Photoshop and fake my way through web page design). At that point, some sort of barrier dropped between us.

Because I have this sort of power, so to speak, as a western woman in Cambodia, it’s weird how my general perspective has changed a little bit. A role of power definitely comes with a greater sense of responsibility and has forced me to question my values. What sort of image should I create for myself? When and how do I ask for help versus taking a strong lead despite not knowing all the answers? And the ultimate, yet vague, question: What am I trying to achieve?

I’ve never really closely examined the results of my taking on greater responsibilities so quickly. I think in our western background, the responsibilities we gain come to us gradually. We work on one level, which prepares us to move to the next level. But now I’ve been kind of thrown into the water, and it’s like trying to gain footing despite a heavy current trying to drag you along. I almost wish I didn’t have so much control, and as a result, I feel like I’ve been shy in approaching some things I’ve been asked to do but don’t necessarily understand.

This question of voice, however, can be applied to all “marginalized” people. Like women, I think the underdogs in this country -- the people who are justly trying to add to Cambodia’s development -- might face the challenges of gaining respect as leaders. They question their own values: When is it ok to be punished (i.e. sent to jail) for standing up for your beliefs and when do you look the other way? To what extent do you use the resources of the corrupt people in power without you yourself being corrupt?

It all comes back to, what does it take to be heard? Whether you’re a man, woman, westerner, easterner, rich, poor, educated or not, my response to the question would be that as a leader, there’s no clearly defined way to exert authority.

Like the Filipino woman from the discussion, I myself have found that with some people, if I don’t make a clear, direct request for something, I don’t see results. That frankness with another person might immediately turn them against me, so therefore I need to take a softer approach. It’s a dance – if you step too far to once side or the other, you’ve completely lost your case.

As an outsider here, I’ve seen how things are done differently. People back home think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do business, but I’ve moved to another location where you have a whole new set of people that have a whole new set of rights and wrongs. It’s frustrating, sometimes, to deal with those cultural discrepancies. But the truth is, both communities work and both are flawed.

I’m working for a program in which the main goal is to spread ideas of various leadership styles, and I can think of no better way to learn about myself and leadership in general than doing exactly what I’m doing right now– fumbling my way through a country and culture completely foreign to me.

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