Connected Career Women Series

What Empowerment Is Not

Empowerment is such an important concept and practice. Yet sometimes it gets a bad rap. When Mr. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, tweeted: “I am determined we'll create 25 million jobs for Africa's youth in 10 years. Forget 'youth empowerment', what's needed is youth investment!”, the last sentence stung. How come important leaders in the transformation of Africa, seem to have lost their faith in the concept of ‘empowerment’? Is investment not a form of ‘empowerment’? It made me reflect on the many times the concept is applied in a context that is anything but empowering. Sometimes people use the right words for the wrong things. I find empowerment a truly important notion – not to give a false sense of power; but as a way of unlocking the power that is inherently ours.

On our quest to empower ourselves and others we should also learn to distinguish actual “empowerment” from its “false associations”. In the defense of Mr. Adesina and of others who are tired of this word being used without the appropriate action it implies, let us take a closer look at what empowerment is NOT.

Self-protection is not empowerment

We all know them: the bosses who deliberately surround themselves with more junior team members, with less threatening personalities or with much younger employees, all in a bid to ensure their own survival in the company.

Some bosses downgrade positions in their department or team to at least two salary levels below them to prevent their subordinates from becoming a threat. A look at the makeup of a team might give you a clue. A downgrading of a salary grade for an existing, previously higher scaled function is another.

The best measure of true empowerment, is to see where the team members are at the end of a certain period of management. Have people moved on to higher positions in the company? Have they gotten opportunities to grow and to shine? Or did they have to leave the company to realize their true potential? Was their boss rooting for them or keeping them small?

This is what I find most magnetic about successful givers: they get to the top without cutting others down, finding ways of expanding the pie that benefit themselves and the people around them. Whereas success is zero-sum in a group of takers, in groups of givers, it may be true that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Adam Grant Ph.D., Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
Tokenism is not empowerment

Sometimes companies want to make a statement.

They understand that “diversity”, “women’s empowerment” or “environmental sustainability” looks good for their corporate brand. They know that men-only boards, committees or panels do not look good. They understand that the growing importance of women and minorities when it comes to purchasing power and influence should not be ignored. Yet they are not willing to go all the way.

Having a minority Deputy or having a woman in your Senior Management Team makes no difference, if his or her voice is not heard, or if he or she gets little or no budget to undertake activities.

If you are serious about gender diversity, the CEO of your company should be promoting it, and not only a lower-ranked gender focal person or diversity officer. If you are serious about making an impact on women, you will ensure diverse female leadership is involved in the activities, that they get a budget to work with and that those who are supposed to be impacted are surveyed and involved.

Tokenism is quite easily unmasked due to incongruences between words and actions. Saying one thing is easy, but living it is something altogether different.

Not sharing the spotlight is not empowerment

From our college days many of us will remember a particular Professor who would let his or her (admittedly, in my day they were mostly men) graduate students do most of the research work, but would then refuse to add their names to publications.

Luckily, there are many more people happy to share the spotlight or to give opportunities to others. Leaders who are not empowering will not give opportunities for those reporting to them to shine and to be recognized for their achievements. Hoarding visibility and recognition is not a good strategy. A sustainable career making strategy is to give opportunity to others which will multiply in return.

“When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Toni Morrison
Proscription is not empowerment

Empowering someone does not entail telling him or her exactly what to do. If anything, it entails quite the opposite.

Empowerment is defined by Lexico (Oxford) as, “(1) Authority or power given to someone to do something. (1.1) The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”

Controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights, having authority and power to do something – all allude to the same thing: agency; having decision-making power and the authority to act on decisions you take.

Therefore ’empowerment’ without ‘agency’ is not empowerment. It is proscription. It is telling someone to do something.

Empowerment comes with trust that the person, institution or government in question knows what is good for him/herself, or for the institution or country. Steve Jobs has been quoted to say “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Although I don’t know if he was a good example of an empowering leader, this quote illustrates my point perfectly.

You don’t empower anyone (including your children) by spelling out exactly what they should do.

So what is empowerment? 

Beyond the definition given above, to me, empowerment is giving opportunity to (or removing obstacles, for) oneself (self-empowerment) and others (empowerment), and trusting that you (self-empowerment) or others (empowerment) will know what to do.

How those you empower choose to reach their objective will most likely not be how you would do it yourself, but the goal is not perfection. The goal is agency: the power to choose one’s own course of action and to assume the responsibility for the consequences.

An empowered person will try something, achieve something or fail. Try again and perhaps succeed or fail faster. The person will get the opportunity to stand in the arena, to dare greatly and to understand that the power they sought was always theirs for the taking. That experience in itself builds confidence, as only experience can.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

About the Author

Lucy Schalkwijk is a women’s empowerment champion, a connector and a skills development enthusiast. She is passionate about connecting and empowering women in the workplace and writes about careers, networking, women’s empowerment, and leadership.

Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: info@careerwomensnetwork-kigali.com and +250783719431.


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