I’ve been thinking a lot about the many ways that women are under represented in the symbols used in our American culture. For example, power is often represented in ultra-masculine images. Here the symbol of power, the train engine, is all iron and steam and rods and meshing cogs. Heavy, earth-bound, capable it is driven and managed by firemen and engineers.

Medium shot of train wheels with steam coming out of a vent.

Our understanding of how things need to work is often driven by the ideas represented in the symbols we all understand. Hard, tough manly symbols for power, soft and pliant feminine symbols for the supporting roles care and comfort. The King of the Beasts, the Iron Fist, six pack abs vs. earth mother, sweetheart.

In the working world, this belief can impede women’s advancement into leadership roles if leadership is based on an understanding of who is strong and powerful. The weak need not apply.

Is there another way to think about power?

But here is another symbol of power. This one intricate, delicate, fragile, the prime element of flight. The feather.

A single black feather against a white background.

To be able to fly is one the deepest human desires; to have wings that enable us to join the birds in soaring above. What makes flight possible? Delicate, complex, ingenious, hollow-boned feathers. Angels and fairies, generally female, are always imagined with wings. There is a huge element of perceived danger in human flight as in the cautionary tale of Icarus. I imagine that even birds require a leap of courage as they step from the nest to take their first flight supported by their tiny wings.

Why do I equate the feather with feminine power and risk taking. I believe that women who trust themselves to learn the ways of the masculine world of work are as brave as those birds learning to fly. The risk is supported by a delicate but powerful feather. It is a foreign environment – dominated for centuries by men – where women are sometimes unwelcome or seen as interlopers. When women are a minority in that environment, power is often denied.

It is empowering to think that this very feminine soft and delicate feather is an under appreciated and unrecognized symbol of female strength and power. There are many ways to qualify for positions of leadership. Muscular strength is not the only one. Sometimes the ability to soar and trust the fragile and delicate feather is the best way.