August 31, 2023
3 Reasons Why We're Dumping the Term Empowerment

The language of "empowerment" suggests that power is something given from those who have it to those who don't, & implies that certain groups need to be helped to gain power. Empowerment is not about giving power to the powerless, but about creating the conditions for individuals & communities to access & mobilize their own sources of power.

It’s International Women’s Month. A month to recognize & celebrate the social, economic, cultural, & political achievements of women around the world. A day to call to action for gender equality & the advancement of women’s rights.  

We’ve got two words to say to that. Hell yes! So Happy Women’s Month! To the amazing women of the world, thank you for your strength, resilience, & determination.

This month is also used to call for more “Women Empowerment”. & for that we also got two words to say. Hell no. 

em·​pow·​er·​ment | \ im-ˈpau̇(-ə)r-mənt: power, right, or authority given to someone to do something

We hear & read it all the time. Women empowerment, employee empowerment, youth empowerment.

In other words, granting certain groups of people the idea of power & more control over their life.

Frankly that just sounds paternalistic & condescending. Especially when it's used by people in positions of power & privilege to help those who are less powerful.

The language of “empowerment” here suggests the people that are being “empowered” are not capable or deserving of power on their own. That they need someone better or stronger to intervene in order to gain that power & control. 

There’s an innate assumption that someone stronger & better is giving someone weaker & lesser, power. 

Empowerment is also framed in a way that suggests that power is something that is generously given to individuals or groups, rather than something that they already possess or have the capacity to develop on their own.

There’s a sense of goodwill & grandiosity, where it implies generosity when someone “shares” their power.

Exhibit A, an employee should be grateful when their manager empowers them. When in reality, an employee is already powerful, all they need is the right environment & opportunity to excel.

Let’s challenge this kind of top-down, hierarchical understanding of power. Instead work on creating supportive environments & opportunities that people need in order to exercise their own power. 

Which brings us to our last point. 

The language of “empowerment” focuses on the individual, when in reality, it requires systemic change to address issues of power & inequality. 

For instance, focusing too much on empowering individual women obscures the structural & systemic barriers that limit women’s opportunities & options. 

This includes changes to laws, policies, & cultural norms that currently limit women's opportunities & perpetuate gender-based discrimination.

Patty McCord, the author of Powerful, said, "the reason we have to empower people is because we took that power away from them."

In this sense, empowerment is not about giving power to someone who is powerless, but rather about creating the conditions that enable individuals & communities to access & mobilize their own sources of power.

Power resides in each one of us. We just need the opportunity to use it.

Let us know your views on the language of empowerment & if you’re looking to to change the narrative with us, apply to join our community.

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Zara M. Najjar

Co-Founder & Opportunity Driver @ SIRA
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