In Power, Yes! Empowerment, No Thanks!

Lately I’ve become sensitive to many buzzwords in business literature, and frankly, at times irritated. In particular, the words empowerment, empowering, and empowered bother me. This being Women’s History Month, it’s the perfect time to explore why words that are so well-intentioned don’t leave me with a positive impression.

According to Merriam-Webster, the word empower means: “to give official authority or legal power to; to promote the self-actualization or influence of.” This gives me pause. Empowerment is not real power or absolute control — it is someone or something acting for you or on your behalf, passing on or sharing the reigns, but it is not completely autonomous and it is not self-actualized.

This leads to my advice: be wary whenever you see the word empowerment or one of its variants in an article or program description about leadership, especially when associated with female careers, or women in leadership positions. There is an unhealthy passivity at the heart of the concept of empowerment: it promotes power that is supplementary, but not overarching. In this way, empowerment fails to address the real issue: that women should have actual power.

Despite all the years we’ve been reading about, attending seminars on, or participating in programs to foster female empowerment, very little progress has been made toward increasing the number of women in positions of power. Isn’t it strange that we continue to focus our efforts on a concept that has proven incapable of achieving any results it promises?

Without a revolution real change cannot be achieved. So enough with empowerment. Let’s take more power!

A Different Type of Power is Needed for the Future

Why is it that female empowerment does not lead to more power — why are all industries and institutions still unevenly led by men? George Orwell famously wrote it best: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

Photo by Jordan Donaldson

Empowering women is a way to placate us, to ensure we don’t take over completely. Men define what power is, what it means, and how it acts — and in order for women to have some power, we need to be allowed in, adopt their customs, and rely on laws, quotas and diversity programs to shift it in our direction.

Yet the male paradigm of “power over” no longer works. It’s increasingly clear that patriarchy is ill-suited to meet not only today’s challenges, but tomorrow’s as well. We need a more egalitarian and respectful model of power if we want to safeguard the future for all. We have to learn to operate differently: “power over” is over!

Women have the opportunity to redefine what power should be, today and tomorrow. We can cast a wider net of who has power and access to it. Like the Copernican revolution, replacing the male-dominant model of power with a more empathetic execution would be a paradigm shift of historic dimensions.

In the spirit of Brené Brown, I invite you to consider what power could look like, and how it could shape our world differently, if we move from a world defined by power over, to one enriched by meaningful prepositions: power from, power to, power for, power with — all based on power within.

It takes a lot of courage and clarity to think about what you want power for, to, with and from when it’s not your cultural birthright. I would love to hear your views on your relationship to power and how you intend to seize and exercise your power.

You can contact me and we can unpack what power means to you and how you can direct it in a strategic and well-intended manner.

So let’s start saying yes to power, and no thanks to empowerment.

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