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Sex And Power Dynamics – Women In Business

“Please show up and embrace your divine feminine entirely. You can be strong yet kind, sensual yet classy, smart and witty, funny and bold…be all the things! Vulnerability is our greatest yet scariest connection as humans. Leading with honesty and intellect is key. Let’s be honest, there is great power in beauty but knowing that women as a whole are so much more than our looks and voicing it, helps differentiate being an object vs. human.” – Nazanin Mandi, Transformational Life Coach, and Actress

Often when we talk about sex and power it is because there has been an event that requires addressing. Rarely do we examine the power dynamics outside of an incident. Talking about things before they happen is a great way to create change, be more empowered, and develop a healthy relationship with our sexuality and power.

Most women in business have experienced, at one point in time, a superficial and sexualized undercurrent while engaging in business interactions. These surface-level interactions tend to cloud the judgment of decision-makers and get in the way of seeing the true value a woman brings to the table. Given that men tend to have access to power and are in charge of opportunities they may abuse their power by using sex as a chess move to advance selfish gains. These interactions, though insidious, are not always overt. They can be very subtle, such as stringing a woman along by dangling the idea that they will be supportive of her business. Sometimes men aren’t fully aware they are doing this. In fairness, some women do this as well. It can be frustrating to have your time and efforts disregarded and wasted, especially as an entrepreneur when your time and energy are so crucial to your business’s success.

Nadia Dugal offers an insider’s perspective on the differences between being a woman in business and being a man in business. As a cis-man Nadia was one of the most active venture capital lawyers in the world. In 2021 she transitioned from male to female. She is now the co-founder of Tome and an educator on venture deals for Berkeley Law. After transitioning she realized, “There’s much discussed about male privilege, but it’s hard to internalize what that means when that’s the only world you know. Although I’ve given up a lot of privilege by transitioning, I find that I still have “learned privilege” – this sense of entitlement influences my behavior in so many ways. The confidence instilled in me from being a cis-man and impacting my professional relationships showed me firsthand one of the many ways in which privilege can hugely impact outcomes.

As a man so much didn’t matter, including what I wore. And, if anything, history now shows that soup-stained khaki shorts and a wrinkled unwashed t-shirt just might be the ticket to a unicorn term sheet. The time of day for a meeting didn’t matter, and there was a presumption that I was a leader because I was male. But transitioning presented so many new factors to consider. In dressing for a meeting, how do I present in a way that has people take me seriously, but still looks good? If I look “too good,” will my outfit convey a different signal? If I look too fashionable, will I appear frivolous and not “hardcore” enough? These are all judgments made about women but not about men. And, no, we can’t quite be taken seriously while wearing a wrinkled smelly t-shirt with soup-stained shorts!

Even details such as a meeting place and time matter. Am I communicating something different if I accept a meeting in the evening? What if it’s a restaurant? A nice restaurant? A bar? Cis-men take this for granted. Why would it matter? But as a woman, I have to be vigilant, and it’s just the nature of the world I’ve entered.”

Nazanin advocates for setting up clear dynamics from the beginning. “Foundational boundaries start with unspoken words. How you walk into a room and carry yourself sets the tone for the interactions. People know who they can mess with and who they cannot. You can tell a lot about somebody just by their presence and energy. Start your interactions by having the confidence to look someone in the eyes. Speak powerfully to show them, “I’m not intimidated. I have a voice. I have my own opinion. I’m a boss. I have my own mind and knowledge and you can’t mess with me.”

Sexuality is a form of power. Power can also be used to obtain sex. In business, it is important to create clear-cut lines. If not, interactions can be confusing and become blurred. Using sexual dynamics as a power play can also create misalignment within the business. If the foundation of the business interactions is not based on authenticity they can lead to shaky ground at a later point in time. Before approaching a business opportunity, get clear on your intentions. If there is sexual tension, find a diplomatic way to address it.

I once had a man, who I asked to be my mentor, inquire if there was any possibility of romantic involvement between us during our first meeting. He wanted to make sure there was no gray area. I replied that I had no romantic interest, which he respected. This allowed us to address sexual tension up front and establish a solely platonic mentorship relationship. It was the first and only time I had been asked this question so directly. It was refreshing and created a deeper level of trust between us. If this man had not been as conscious and accountable, I too had the option and ability to address any sexual tension. Asking the question does not always equate to honest answers, but at least you did your due diligence and were accountable on your end.

Michael Hexner, the founder of Wheel Works and business advisor, shares his wisdom, “if a man has ulterior motives that you begin to sense move on and don’t let him waste your time. It is a power play, and you can take your power back by not engaging. Additionally, people in business waste your time for all kinds of reasons. No matter the causality, just move on and don’t allow them to waste your time anymore.”

Remember the value you bring to the table. You and your business are just as important as the people who you engage with to advance your entrepreneurial work. If people are not treating you with respect and do not see the value you offer you can choose to change the trajectory of the interaction. Don’t be afraid to let go of perceived opportunities if you feel someone is wasting your time. Investing your time with people who have false and indirect intentions takes away from other fruitful unexplored opportunities…and time is a nonrefundable currency.

Sexuality is a natural and beautiful thing. It is not a matter of suppressing sexuality. Like all things in life, it is about discerning when it is appropriate to engage in the sensual experience of being a woman and for men when to engage and disengage from sexual desires. There is no set rule that men or women are in these specific roles. They can be reversed. However, given the historic societal structure, the typical dynamics involve men in the position of power. For women, society has engrained that power comes from sexuality. Kym Gold, co-founder of True Religion Jeans and Style Union Home offers advice to women, “Don’t lead with your sexuality because it is hard to go back. You can be beautiful and sexy, but don’t use that with business. Lead with your confidence.”

Most power-related interactions are subtle and socially ingrained. Humanity is being asked to become more aware and level up for future generations. It is up to each of us (men, women, or nonbinary) to be a part of establishing the new wave of gender dynamics in business. As our awareness expands we gain insight into how we each are a part of this cycle. We need to have patience with the evolutionary process, internally and externally, as we make the necessary changes. As with anything new, it takes time and we may occasionally stumble as we learn different ways of being. Courage and strength are needed to usher in major changes in things like sexual dynamics in business. Respect for ourselves and others is the anchor we need to keep coming back to. It is important to understand the power each one of us yields. Most women are far more powerful than they give themselves credit for. Power is abundantly available and lies in the choices we make. Choose wisely how you want to be treated, how you want to represent yourself, and who you want to share your power with.

If you have experienced more severe forms of sexual harassment MovingForward created a handbook for harassment for founders.

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