What does Empowerment Look Like?

Listen to this blog in podcast form! Plus hear a bonus conversation between Jill and Brianne C. Martin as they discuss what empowerment looks like and their empowerment journeys.

I remember when I was in elementary school being assigned to do a report on a role model. I was 10 years old, I think, and my mind blanked. I knew what a role model was, and I felt pressured to have one by my parents and teachers, but I did not have any. There are presidents, astronauts, movie stars, and other celebrities, yet never felt like I wanted to be them, or follow in their footsteps. (I ended up doing my report on Sally Ride because of parental pressure.)

To this day I struggle with finding a true role model who I aspire to be like, and instead have settled for admiring different traits of different people I learn exist on this planet. All of the people I look up to have one thing in common: empowerment. From a young age I always wanted to be one of those empowered people, and now I have the self awareness to know that the reason why is because I want to be significant and loved for who I am.

Empowerment is a word I hear thrown around a lot by people, communities, and organizations that call themselves feminist. There was even an Empowering Women series of lectures at my alma mater; I attended the lectures but did not feel particularly empowered afterward. In some contexts I see, like on social media, empowerment is promoted by showing “boss babes” flaunting their luxury items, dressing in designer clothes, and sharing how they made 6 or 7-figure businesses. In other advertisements on shoes, makeup, toys, soap, and even telecom service, women’s empowerment is promoted along with the product. But are these REALLY empowering?

What is empowerment?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, yes I’m stating the dictionary definition, to be empowered means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself.

Psychological empowerment is composed of four cognitions: meaning, self-determination, competence, and impact. Empowerment manifests self-confidence and renews your sense of purpose. When you act on your ability to do things and make decisions for yourself, you grow self-confidence and can follow your purpose.

Reflecting back on those advertisements, by nature purchasing something advertised will not necessarily lead to empowerment. You are making that decision to purchase the good or service, but that product in and of its self may not empower you. And let’s take this a step further to look at your purchase through a wider lens:

We live in a capitalist society. Not only that, but it’s patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-normative, imperialist, and white supremacist. This means that most of the images we see in media of what “empowerment” means and what a person who is empowered looks like is a straight, cis, white male from the upper class of society, with a well-paying job and property (including but not limited to a house, expensive car, wife, and children), AKA the oppressor.

When we see advertisements to “empower women”, what are the women doing? In a Verizon commercial, there is a girl working with power tools in a garage. Others have women wearing suits in minimalist corporate offices (the origin of minimalism is fascist and focused on erasure of culture, by the way). Some advertisements have women dressed in provocative clothing (for the male gaze), supporting men as gatekeepers to women’s power. Nearly every advertisement I have seen that purports to empower women, does so by portraying women in a “masculine” context, succeeding while being more masculine, or by promoting the message that a woman’s level of empowerment is measured by her proximity to and/or support from a man.

This is just one example of the false narrative of empowerment and how it can be sexist. Messages about empowerment can also be racist, classist, and ablest (and other -ists) as well. For example, media messages portray that to be empowered for black people means to be more like white people, for poor people to be more like rich people, and for people with disabilities to overcome their disability and achieve more than even an able-bodied person.

The underlying message by mainstream media is that to be empowered means that you think, look, and act like the oppressor.

Is true empowerment to be like the oppressor? No. Like I said earlier, it means having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself. You don’t have to be a white male in order to do things or make decisions for yourself. Oh wait… People who are oppressed are treated cruelly or are prevented from having the same opportunities, freedom, and benefits as others. This means that they are prevented from (in certain situations) exercising their will and ability to make decisions for themself because of authority, the oppressor.

So, in a way you do have to be like the oppressor, a straight, white, cis, wealthy male, to have true empowerment and be able to follow through completely with your decisions (and this is true even for straight, white, cis, wealthy men).

Now that we understand what empowerment does not look like, what does empowerment look like?

When I was listening to the podcast Equivalence by EVE List with Sophie Leray: S1 E1, I had this moment where I thought, “wow, so this is what it’s like to listen to empowered women!” The podcast Equivalence explores what is equivalence in corporate and other places, and many episodes explore gender equity in the Middle East. It’s great!

The guest on the episode I listened to is Hermoine, a TV reporter and activist and advocate for women. She is originally from Australia, but works in the Middle East. In her role as a TV reporter and advocate, she feels like she’s constantly working against sexism.

As I listened to this episode, I felt in my soul that I needed to make this blog post about empowerment because I felt I found a role model of empowerment in Hermione (and the show host Sophie)! I want to share what qualities this woman has, as she self-describes in the episode, to provide this example of an empowered person.

Qualities of an Empowered Person:

1. Dedicates themself to Personal Development

Hermione spoke fondly of the years she dedicated to her own personal develop, getting to know herself and develop her self-awareness. She said how you see yourself is indicative of your self esteem.

2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness.

My ears perked up when Hermione said that she fought every sexual harassment case in her career. As someone who struggled a lot with navigating and reporting harassment, especially in my early career, I was impressed. I know the courage and self-assurance required to stand up for yourself, and this woman sure has quite a bit of that! It really excites me to hear from a woman with that kind of strength and courage.

Hermione credits her mother and father for raising her to be confident and strong, and feels like this kept people from harassing her as much as other women. She says she “didn’t fit into their box of what would be a victim”. The ones who did harass anyway, she prosecuted.

“You have to know yourself, love yourself, and stand up for yourself as a woman.”

– Hermione

3. Grounds themself in Core Values that Gives Resilience

Hermione states that her values from family and identity and faith in God, her spirituality, helped her develop her resilience because she knows she was made in the image of God. Even though she missed opportunities because of harassment, she kept going.

“The people who don’t give up are the ones that win.”

– Hermione

I included this key to resilience in The STEM Thrive Guides courses, which teach how to navigate difficult situations involving inappropriate behavior like microaggressions at work and school. In the courses, I share the resilience mindset, which are a set of 5 truths, or values, that I use to empower myself when deciding what actions to take to resolve a situation and reach justice. Grounding to your core values and acting from that place allows you to keep going and live with purpose despite uncertainty or setbacks.

4. Learning About and Growing Awareness of their Societal Context

Throughout the episode, it was evident that Hermione was well aware of issues in society, oppression, and how she is directly affected. She shared deep wisdom that she has grown through her learning and awareness. She feels like women have self-hatred and self-deprecation. Women tend to put themselves down while men build themselves up. We have to look at our identities as women and question why we do that. She knew that sexual harassment is usually subtle comments (also called microaggressions), and can be hard to identify.

She pointed out how in our culture, women are oversexualized; there’s pressure to look a certain way in her industry (news, TV) and many women have had procedures like plastic surgeries to stay working. She says she thinks the world has a long way to go to reach equity.

Growing this awareness of society, why you’re treated certain ways, helps one distinguish what they can’t control from what they can control. Since empowerment comes from a place of making decisions and choices, knowing what you can actually affect is important so that you don’t feel defeated. For instance, if you change how you dress to prevent harassment, you can feel defeated over and over again because how you dress has no control over how people treat you. Realizing that you have no control over preventing harassment allows you to focus on what you can control, which includes advocating for yourself as well as documenting and reporting harassment.

Once you realize what you do have control over, you can act on that while knowing what is outside of your control. Empowerment is action-based, and confidence grows when your actions produce the results you desire.

5. They Lift Others Up.

Hermione talked about how when you’re empowered you want to lift others, not tear them down. She said how it’s about relationship building, and it’s a mutual benefit in the long run; she believes what you sow is what you reap and that success is saving lives. This demonstrates how she has a growth and abundance mindset, not needing to compete but to collaborate with others to solve issues. She’s focused less on how others see her, and more on what is within her control: her thoughts and actions.

This is, by nature, the opposite of being an oppressor. Lifting other people is love. Loving is the willingness to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s growth, as Erich Fromm says.

6. They Combine all the Above Traits to Pursue their Purpose

Hermione notes that the role of Hollywood is to please men not women, and, because of this, has been up against sexism to pursue her career in film and TV. She advocates for more women directors and writers and producers in the film industry, and has been director of the World of Women Film Fair Middle East. Despite setbacks, she is now the CEO of Straight Street Media, a global media consulting business. She continues her advocacy work as well with the House of Rest, a privately funded, non-political and non-governmental resource center run by women for women survivors of sex slavery, war, violence and oppression.

You can see that her entire journey, from Australia to the Middle East, from navigating sexism in her industry to promoting women in her industry, and then to building businesses and organizations around lifting others… her entire journey combines everything she has learned to act with purpose. She not only serves her higher good, but also those around her.

She may be oppressed, but she minimizes and counteracts oppression. She has not become the oppressor.

7. They Know They Can’t Do It All Alone.

Empowered people know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, and surround themselves with people who love and support them. Hermione emphasized that she married someone with a similar vision as her, to help lift communities. Throughout the episode she discussed the support of her family throughout her life. And here she was on a podcast sharing her story, connecting with the host of the show.

From her business, to her work as a film festival director, to her new initiative The House of Rest, you can see through her actions that she is all about building communities that lift their members and others. She knows that she can’t make the big, positive changes in the world by herself.

The image of empowerment as one who conquers solo is simply false and, honestly, probably improbable. True empowerment incorporates community because the decisions that stem from the empowered person are enacted to love and respect themself and others.

I had Brianne listen to this podcast and wanted to hear her opinion since she is an empowered person. …

These are just 7 qualities of someone who is empowered, and, to summarize, they are:

  1. Dedicates themself to personal development
  2. Advocates for themself from a place of self-love and self-awareness
  3. Grounds themself in core values that gives resilience
  4. Learning about and growing awareness of their social context
  5. They lift others up
  6. They combine all of these traits to pursue their purpose
  7. They know they can’t do it alone

There may be other traits and qualities of an empowered person that I did not mention here. If you think of more, DM @stemthriveguides on Instagram with any additional qualities you think an empowered person has.

The image of empowerment as similar to an oppressor is so toxic and does not match reality. You can be oppressed and still be empowered, and simply acting like an oppressor does not make you empowered (it gives away your personal power and freedom).

Lately I have been reading the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire, which provides amazing insight arguing that education is freedom. Originally when I was planning this blog post and podcast episode, I was not thinking of including this text; however, I happened to start reading it and it COMPLETELY coincided with this reflection on what empowerment looks like. I seriously wish I could just quote the whole book here, but that would take too much time and probably be Copywrite infringement, so go ahead and please read this book but keep in mind it can be a little sexist (which the book Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks discusses).

In this reflection of empowerment, I’ve been sharing how simply the oppressed becoming the oppressor, or acting like the oppressor, is not empowerment. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire discusses how the oppressed are yearning for freedom and justice and struggling to recover their lost humanity. He explains how the oppressor loses their humanity by stealing the humanity from the oppressed. So, in our society, both oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized. He writes, “…sooner or later being less human leads to the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”

There are a few stages to liberating yourself as an oppressed person, and I won’t cover them all here, but I do want to speak about the ones that relate to becoming empowered. Essentially, empowerment is liberation, right?

Freire states that the initial stage of the struggle of the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, they tend to become oppressors, or sub-oppressors. This is exactly following how media messages are shaped: the oppressed struggle but see that a product or service can make them more like the oppressor, and so they purchase the product consciously or subconsciously fighting against their own oppression. But by putting money in the pockets of their oppressors, they are fulfilling status quo in the end, and not liberating themselves at all.

Looking back at when I first entered the field of physics as a college student, which is a very male-dominant field, I even remember feeling like I needed to assimilate and be like my straight, white male colleagues. I was already white, but I tended to dress in khaki pants and polo shirts, which were very uncomfortable for me but I thought it would save me from my oppression, the harassment I faced. I talk about this in episode 5 of the Resilient in STEM podcast, all about embracing femininity in the workplace. By changing how I dressed, and even how I acted, I was essentially trying to become the oppressor. I thought this would make me feel empowered, but, it did not. My choices were not coming from a place of love, but, rather, a place of fear.

Another example that is less obvious of a time when I became the oppressor to try to counter my oppression, was when doing science outreach to children. Instead of recognizing their humanity, I approached teaching science as if I held all the keys to knowledge, which I was then bestowing upon them. It was like a performative savior type of dynamic that made me feel good because of false generosity, yet did probably more bad than good. I was not really teaching them anything because I was not speaking to their identity, while simultaneously upholding status quo dynamic of teacher-student, which is very hierarchal and dominating. I want to speak more about the pitfalls of science outreach and how it perpetuates inequity and oppression, but I’ll save that for another post.

That first stage was essential to me in order to become more empowered. I had to try and fail to empower myself by trying to become the oppressor. I’m not proud of it, but it seems like the normal path so I forgive myself and try to do better moving forward.

The next stage to empowerment, and liberation, is reflection. And this is where I want to leave you today. I feel like this post may be enough to open your eyes or validate feelings you already had but maybe did not know how to put in words. By researching and reflecting for this post myself, I learned a lot about myself and oppression. Reflection is the next step, growing awareness of yourself and society in general (which is the 1st and 4th trait I listed of an empowered person!).

And, now that I’ve written this whole post, I now see that perhaps we use the word “empowerment” to mean “liberation” interchangeably. At nearly any point during this I could have replaced “empowered” with “liberated” and it would have meant the same. Wow. Perhaps women empowerment is simply a term gaslighting women because empowerment stems from the individual but the connotation of liberation stems from society or government, and those in power put the onus on women to change (and empower themselves) rather than change the systems that are keeping them oppressed.

Well, I’ll just leave you with that!

If you want to continue this discussion, join the Resilient in STEM Facebook community, which is a private community there to support you on your career journey! Everyone is welcome!

Also, I want to invite you to follow The STEM Thrive Guides on Instagram (@stemthriveguides) or Twitter (@stemthriveguide), and subscribe the The Resilient in STEM podcast! Leave a review if you liked this episode!

If you would like to learn how to navigate bias, harassment, and discrimination at work and/or school, you will want to check out The STEM Thrive Guides online courses, which provide information on how to document and report harassment. I also have a FREE Guide to Internship Success that shares essential information for getting mentors and sponsors, as well as job opportunities!

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