What empowerment actually means

Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly without claiming it, she stands up for all women.
— Maya Angelou

I was on a new women’s website recently checking out what the coming business was all about. I’m endlessly fascinated with women start ups, especially when they are to do with women’s lives, careers, businesses and empowerment.

In the letter from the editor, she stated clearly right up front that this site and business was not about empowering women. ‘You are already empowered,’ she wrote, ‘we are simply here to hold space for that.’

Hunh. ‘You are already empowered.’ She later went on to say that women don’t have confidence issues or deal with conflict about their personal and professional lives. She kind of lost me there, because clearly, nothing could be further from the truth.

But back to empowerment. Really? Liberated, sure. In most parts of the Western world and many other places, women are liberated. We can vote, self determine our futures, marry who we want and so on. But empowerment is a completely different thing from liberation.

I texted my girlfriend Claire to ask her opinion, ‘Well, most women I know feel anything but empowered.’

I always remember a line in Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big from one of her teachers, ‘Women are liberated, but we are not yet fully empowered.’ It stumped me when I read it. And then I was like, ‘Yes, YES, that is so true.’

What does being empowered actually mean anyway? When something stumps me, I always get to researching - I like to put the science and the spirit together to get a holistic picture of things.

Google the word empowerment and the online dictionary defines it as ‘the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights,’ which is line with social scientist Julian Rappaport's definition.

Makes sense and is pretty straight forward, I thought.  Note the words ‘process of becoming.’ Then I found this really interesting article from academic publication The Extension Journal. This explanation of empowerment is meaningful:

 “The first core concept of empowerment is the idea of power.  The possibility of empowerment depends on two things. First, empowerment requires that power can change. If power cannot change, if it is inherent in positions or people, then empowerment is not possible, nor is empowerment conceivable in any meaningful way. In other words, if power can change, then empowerment is possible. Second, the concept of empowerment depends upon the idea that power can expand. This second point reflects our common experiences of power rather than how we think about power.”

 The authors go on to write:

“Empowerment is multi-dimensional, social, and a process. It is multi-dimensional in that it occurs within sociological, psychological, economic, and other dimensions. Empowerment also occurs at various levels, such as individual, group, and community. Empowerment, by definition, is a social process, since it occurs in relationship to others. Empowerment is a process that is similar to a path or journey, one that develops as we work through it. In addition, one important implication of this definition of empowerment is that the individual and community are fundamentally connected.”

I wrote half of my PhD on women and power so I could go on with the research forever, but I won’t. It’s important to understand that empowerment is a continual process, not a place we arrive at. You might feel empowered in one area of your life today, but not so much tomorrow. And there may be some aspects of your work or life that you really don’t feel empowered about at all. It’s also relational, dependant on people, circumstances, relationships, power structures, communities. It goes beyond us as individual women, to the collective of all women. For one of us is to be truly empowered, we all need to be truly empowered.

 This part in the above research - If power cannot change, if it is inherent in positions or people, then empowerment is not possible, nor is empowerment conceivable in any meaningful way - is also of palpable relevance. We live in a world where so many of our traditional power structures are still the same. They were built by men, for men, and are still largely controlled by men (white men, and built on white privelage). And yet we wonder why women don’t feel empowered in these systems, or indeed leave these systems when they have had enough of feeling powerless. In many cases, it’s just not conceivable for women to feel empowered as the power is inherent in those positions and people, and whilst that is changing slowly (ever so slowly) we have to realise that as women rise and structures fall it will change, but we are not there yet.

Let’s not forget either, that this lens of power and empowerment should be applied not just in the context of men and women, but of course and critically to all people who face oppression for so many reasons: black women, indigenous women, women of colour, women of non-dominant cultures, young women, older women, queer, transgender, intersex, non-binary, gay women, less able bodied women, and those who experience any form of suppression due to their race, religion or choices. Women are empowered? When you look at women in the collective, you really can’t say that we are.

Empowerment is possible, absolutely. But let’s not expect that all women are automatically there or expect them to be so. We aren’t. We still have work to do: individually for ourselves, and collectively in the systems in which we live and work. Everyday we have the opportunity to become more empowered, feel more empowered, act more empowered and be more empowered. We haven’t yet won the game.  But just knowing that we are a work in process, and that we can decide what that work looks like, is empowering in itself.


I work to feel more empowered every day. I work to help other women feel empowered,

especially those women who have less of a voice than I do.

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You're a work in process, so relax. You don't have to have it all figured out.

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Photo Credit : Brandi Redd


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