What’s Wrong With Women’s Empowerment?

What's Wrong With Women's Empowerment
What’s Wrong With Women’s Empowerment

What’s wrong with women’s empowerment? Nothing and everything.

At its best, women’s empowerment programs are an organizational (or social) recognition that cultural barriers diminish women’s chances to succeed and make an attempt to counteract those forces to give women a better chance. Why? Not just because it’s the right thing to do from a social justice point of view, but because – as Warren Buffet writes in this month’s Fortune Magazine – companies who do this instigate The Women Effect and gain the productivity and performance improvements that come along with leveraging 100% of your best and brightest instead of a lot less than that.

What Most Women’s Empowerment Programs Seem To Actually Do

Those are great intentions, however, because they are too-often implemented without a deep intention for the entire culture to change, the organization ends up putting women in an “empowerment siloh” where they’re isolated and are taught how to “fit in” to the culture that doesn’t naturally empower them. Guess what their success ratio is when they fit in? Right. The same as it was when they didn’t get fit in. The default system doesn’t reward a woman for fitting in any more than it does when she doesn’t (this is an extension of the double bind research is documenting where women can’t get ahead by fitting either traditional female or male stereotypes).

Most companies do a poor job at empowering employees of any gender. But the irony of women’s empowerment makes this problem even more acute. The theory of most traditional women’s empowerment seems to be that if we acknowledge women’s disadvantage and then train them how to get ahead like the men do, they’ll be empowered. In this isolated space women talk about work-life balance and some – I swear I heard this just last week from a major global enterprise – check the box on women’s empowerment with social events where fashion designers and chefs come in to show their wares and techniques.

It’s true that I’m stereotyping some of these programs and they’re not all this bad, but I have to say that in my personal experience, and the experience of many other coaches and consultants I talk to, this kind of lipservice “women’s empowerment” program is much more common than not, at every size organization and in every industry. These programs are also chronically underfunded so that most suggestions beyond a ½ day event are greeted with “we don’t have the funds for that,” which is like saying “we’re not empowered to cause any real change.”

And thus the irony. “Women’s empowerment” has become yet another opportunity for women to feel unempowered. It’s as though they’re locked away in the tower with other women “to help them” waiting for Prince Charming to empower them.

What Does Women’s Empowerment Look Like?

I have personally seen few examples of where successful women’s empowerment in a corporate setting, though I’ve read about them. McKinsey’s groundbreaking research on this has produced a concise description of the four qualities of organizations that are achieving gender balance in their leadership tiers. (InPower Women will publish the full summary tomorrow.). The key quality of the effective efforts is that they are the exact opposite of the disempowering siloh’s labeled “women’s empowerment.” The efforts are integrated into the organizations talent development efforts from the board on down.

I’ve seen another model of empowerment work, however, which I think holds interesting promise, and I suspect it is also at work in those organizations McKinsey studied.

At the District Alliance for Safe Housing (where I am on the board of directors), the underfunded and highly committed staff helps victims of domestic violence transform into survivors of domestic violence. This distinction is intentional and meaningful to them. The process is not quick or easy, and they do this with an empowerment philosophy that I believe is more INpowerment than traditional Empowerment. (It doesn’t matter what you call it, of course.)

Many social service “empowerment” programs are organized much like the corporate ones. They bring women together in a safe space and allow them to share stories about how unempowered they are. They’re put into programs that dictate how they will heal so they can go back out and fit in to society. They’re treated like victims that need to be protected and sheltered. In the end – despite all the good intentions – this approach doesn’t help them, but reinforces their feelings of disempowerment. DASH, however, tells them that they get to make the decisions about how they put their lives back together. Their individual choices about how to heal their families are honored and supported within the limits of what transitional housing and social services can provide. They are treated with respect and over the course of time they learn to respect themselves.

The result is that they return to their abusers at a lower rate than in more traditional programs and go off the rolls of social service at a higher rate. Why? Because the women have tapped into their own internal power. They don’t view themselves as victims anymore, and so others don’t treat them that way either. The system supports them in solving their own personal puzzle of empowerment and they become committed to find a way out. With support, they do. (For a fabulous TED Talk on this philosophy and results, watch Peg Hacskaylo’s short talk.).

What Women’s Empowerment Programs Can Do To Help Women Find InPowerment

A siloh’d women’s empowerment program can become simply another iteration of the Prince Charming myth, where women wait around to be granted the tiara and life made easy.

This isnt’ working – for the companies for the women.

Companies are watching many of their best and brightest walk out the door just below upper management. The women who stay inside either continue to feel like Prince Charming is playing a cruel game of wait and wait, or they leave and join the swelling ranks of female entrepreneurs (which may not be all bad for them or the economy, by the way.)

But what if our corporate women’s empowerment programs looked more like DASH? What if the women’s empowerment workshops challenged women to respect themselves and develop their own authentic feminine leadership styles* – respecting their own internal power – and then actually supported them by redefining leadership in the organization to make room for InPowered leaders no matter what their gender or ethnicity?

I believe that this approach would achieve astounding results because Prince Charming would be defined out of the mix and the talent Warren Buffet hopes will become engaged in our corporate economy will be activated instead of siloh’d.

So What Can You Do?

    • If you’re a woman in a women’s empowerment program and are tired of waiting for Prince Charming, get into a leadership position and buck the trend to redefine what the program should be. Yes, it’s swimming upstream, but keep asking yourself, “What if Prince Charming isn’t coming?” Contact me for ideas and resources.


    • If you’re in company leadership (woman or man), get educated and learn how the best companies do it. (contact me for ideas and resources.)


    • If you’re in HR, educate, educate, educate upper management and use Mckinsey’s research to arm champions in the C-Suite. Contact me for further resources and ideas.


    • If you’re a man who wants to help women in your company, read this post for some ideas. Join MARC to share stories and ideas with other men who are working towards the same goal. Contact me for ideas and resources.


In short, no matter who you are, if you care about this issue and want to see real results instead of simply checking a box to ensure nothing changes, become inpowered your self and challenge the status quo. There is no Prince Charming, for any of us.

*Authentic Feminine Leadership exists! And it’s the kind of leadership the world says it wants in it’s women and men! Read The Athena Doctrine, John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio.


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