Why We Need To Lose The Word ‘Empowerment’ – And Focus On Power Instead
Ladies, are you feeling empowered? I certainly hope so, because over the past decade multinational companies have been working night and day to find new ways to empower women. Deodorant brands run campaigns empowering women to feel good in their own skin. Victoria’s Secret pledged to become “the world’s leading advocate for women”. The fancy new Hotel Zena launched in Washington DC, dedicated to female empowerment and featuring art made of tampons and a $16 cocktail called the Empowermint.
In recent years Corporate Feminism and self-help culture have turned empowerment into a marketing tactic. Buy this shampoo, it’ll empower you! Buy this car, it’ll empower you! Buy this $75 scented candle, it’ll empower you! Empowerment has become an annoying buzzword, but, more importantly, empowerment culture has become an insidious way of reinforcing existing power structures. The modern Empowered Woman™ doesn’t question capitalism; she buys herself expensive things as a form of self-care. She isn’t concerned about structural inequality: as long as she can find a way into the C-Suite, she’s happy with the status quo.
Empowerment culture seeks to change the individual rather than the system. Think about all the advice women have been given about leadership in recent years. If you want to get ahead, we’ve been told, you need to lean in. You need to speak up. You need to stop saying sorry. If you mould yourself to fit a system created by men, if you act like a man, then you might be given a seat at the table. That’s the thing about the word empowerment, you see, it means someone giving you power or enabling you; it suggests that you are somehow incapable of helping yourself.
Instead of working to advance feminism, empowerment culture has held it back. It has focused on individual achievements rather than structural equality. It’s time to change that: to stop talking about empowerment and focus on power instead. I recently interviewed Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations. “The condescending nature with which we are welcomed into that arena of leadership is a narrative we have to change,” she told me. “There’s still this sort of idea that [power is] something that is graciously bestowed upon us. But you know what? Power is never given, it’s taken.”
So what makes me hopeful? Instead of leaning into toxic power structures, a new generation of female leaders are leaning out – they’re determined to lead on their own terms. “We never need to ask for permission or wait for an invitation to lead,” said Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, when she was asked what she would say to women of colour who are frustrated by comments that seek to minimise their impact. “There’s a constant struggle with people who have power about sharing that power,” she said. “We are not really in the business of asking for the share of that power; we’re in the business of trying to grab that power and return it to the people.” That desire to share power rather than to empower yourself? That’s what real feminism looks like.
Arwa Mahdawi is a New York-based Guardian columnist and the author of Strong Female Lead: Lessons From Women In Power