What is Empowerment All About?
Empowerment is a major buzzword and has been for quite a while. But what is empowerment? It is a term so widely used that its actual definition and what it entails has become somewhat hazy and subject to various interpretations. But let’s look at one such definition, formulated by a couple of researchers and empowerment activists, Nanette Page and Cheryl E. Czuba. According to them, empowerment is a multifaceted social process of challenging long-held attitudes, assumptions about how things are and how they could be made better. Empowerment is all about letting people get more control over their lives, about giving them the power, as the word suggests, of being more successful, more fulfilled. And power in this process is the kind of power that changes the status quo, not the power that keeps it. In other words, empowerment is essentially about change.
This is a change, however, that is not an end in itself. It’s a change that breeds more changes, ultimately leading to something better not just for the empowered person but for society as a whole. According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, female empowerment, helping women participate fully in economic activity across industries and levels, will lead to stronger economies, more stable and just societies and it will also improve the lives not just of women themselves but of their families and communities as well. Gender equality will also go toward achieving international goals for development and human rights and, last but not least, it will benefit businesses, making them more successful. These are the women’s empowerment principles of UN Women and they pretty much sum up the main benefits of gender equality, benefits that have been scientifically tested and proven more than once.
So, these are the principles, the foundations of empowerment as a process. But what does it mean to be empowered on a personal level? Like so many other things, the feeling of empowerment is individual and different for each of us. Power, though, being a central concept, is the key element of this feeling or perhaps knowledge. However, power also lends itself to individual interpretation and needs clarifying. An interesting view on the matter is that of political scientist Dr. Caroline Heldman, who says that an empowered person is self-determined and capable of making truly free choices. Strikingly, perhaps, she adds that our culture makes it impossible for women to be fully empowered in this sense because of the values that are instilled in us at a very early age, which makes them pretty hard to remove. Heldman talks about stereotypes, essentially, about the cultural belief that a woman’s primary value is her body. This belief puts women in a subordinated position, not a position of power, even if they score high on the beauty scale, says Heldman, because this focus on the surface pushes to the back the essence, the individuality of women.
Put simply, the main barrier before empowerment for women is the set of cultural attitudes that put people in molds, push them into one social script or another, as Heldman puts it, and being in a script doesn’t always lead to happiness. When it does, it’s because we have made a conscious choice to be in this script and not because we have to only on the premise that we are women and taking part in this script is what society expects from us. So, aside from power, empowerment is about freedom — the freedom to make your own choices and even if they’re the wrong ones being safe in the knowledge that they were free choices, not the result of family or peer pressure. Empowerment for women will come when they succeed in overriding these pressures and also when they overcome the objectification imposed on them by cultural norms. Women also need a different perspective to what it means to be successful, an opinion shared by both Heldman and bestselling author and journalist Arianna Huffington, two great examples of empowered women themselves. While the former believes women tend to perceive themselves as overachievers as soon as they land in any kind of leadership position instead of considering it the logical, normal outcome of our efforts, the latter simply says that in business women have embraced male values and behaviors which are largely incompatible with the female set-up and this needs to change because even for men, these values — of material wealth as the single mark of success — are not working.
With all the problems with empowerment laid out, here are some of the characteristics of an empowered woman. Naturally, most of them are the opposite of the illustrations of disempowerment and first among these is the setting aside of stereotypes. Being empowered means accepting yourself for who you are and striving to be your best self but in accordance with your own criteria, not anyone else’s. Needless to say, empowered women are free — to make their own choices and decisions, pursue their goals, fulfil their mission — but they are also responsible since they are clear about the fact that freedom comes with great responsibility. It’s this responsibility that is, along with freedom, the main feature of a position of power. it’s also part of the reason why so many women still prefer the position of subordination — it doesn’t require responsibility and responsibility can be so hard to bear, especially when you’re culturally programmed to view it in this way. Freedom and responsibility are in fact often played against each other. When someone advertises freedom — the freedom to choose work over family, for instance — the responsibility that goes with this freedom is downplayed. Conversely, when concerned friends warn us that a position of power, such as a promotion at work, will burden us with a lot of responsibilities, essentially doubting if we could handle them, they downplay the freedom that such a promotion will bring us. And so it goes until you realize that the two go hand in hand and there’s no way around it. That’s empowerment.
Of course, all this begs the question of how to get there, how to become empowered. Counselling psychologist Zeenat Merchant-Syal offers eight tips on how to regain control over your life and reach that position of power. The first step is getting to know yourself and this means looking inside and identifying your strengths and weaknesses. Most of us have probably felt utterly lost at one point or another in our lives. Getting to know yourself is essentially finding yourself, getting back in touch with who you are as a person. Knowing where your strengths lie helps you set realistic goals and not waste your energy on things that are doomed from the start because they are not what make you happy. Continual learning is another step on the road to empowerment. Acquiring new knowledge is very empowering, Merchant-Syal says. There are millions of books and thousands of free online courses in scores of different disciplines. Learning new things keeps the brain active and expands your horizons.
An empowered woman is happy with who she is and she knows what she wants out of life because she knows herself. It’s empowering to know exactly what you want; it makes it easier to achieve it, after all. Related to this, armed with self-knowledge and clarity about goals, you can be more independent in every aspect of your life. Being independent also means being able to enjoy your own company from time to time without necessarily needing anyone else’s. At the same time, empowerment means being able to create and nurture meaningful relationships, both personal and professional, with people that you will always be able to rely on. In these relationships, empower others. If you have successfully attained self-knowledge, independence and clarity of goals, you would be willing to share this wisdom with others, help them live a fuller, more meaningful life. Give back, support charities or do volunteer work. Helping others is one of the most rewarding things anyone could do, contributing to something bigger than your personal agenda. And finally, don’t be afraid to dream and dream big. There are no impossible dreams; we just need to act to make them come true. And to do this, you need the self-knowledge that you have what it takes, the confidence that you can get there. Believing in yourself, not letting anything take you off course and working hard to obtain what you want is empowerment.
1. Page, Nanette, Czuba, Cheryl E. “Empowerment: What Is It?” Journal of Extension, October 1999. http://www.joe.org/joe/1999october/comm1.php
2. Women’s Empowerment Principles, Overview. http://weprinciples.org/Site/Overview/
3. Geil, Victoria. “Interview: What Does It Mean To Be An Empowered Woman?” Verily Magazine, February 2014. http://verilymag.com/interview-what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-empowered-woman/
4. “The 30 Habits of Empowered Women.” Living Empowered, December 2012. http://livingempowered.areavoices.com/2012/12/the-30-habits-of-highly-empowered-women/
5. Merchant-Syal, Zeenat. “8 Tips on How to Become a Positively Empowered Woman.” Positive Provocations, March 2013. http://positiveprovocations.com/2013/03/08/8-tips-on-how-to-become-a-positively-empowered-woman-happy-womens-day/
6. Schawbel, Dan. “Arianna Huffington: Why Entrepreneurs Should Embrace The Third Metric.” Forbes, March 2014. http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2014/03/25/arianna-huffington/