Welcome to the era of conditional empowerment

It’s undeniable that in many ways we have come a tremendous long way with female empowerment. From the beginnings of the women’s rights movement through to 2018, we’ve achieved a great deal (despite the fact there are rights we campaigned for back then that we’re still campaigning for now - pay equity, anyone?) What’s equally undeniable is we still have a long way to go.

Equality, more broadly, is rather complex. There are many issues to unpack and carefully sift through. Each layer comes with its own unique set of challenges, realisations and learnings – often uncomfortable and not previously considered. One such challenge, realisation and learning is the current trend of conditional empowerment.

What is conditional empowerment?

 Conditional empowerment is, as the term suggests, where society ‘grants’ a disempowered group more empowerment than before, then stamps an enormous ‘BUT’ on it. Today we’re beginning a conversation on the conditional empowerment of women, however it’s important to point out that it impacts many disadvantaged individuals across various parts of our community.

Empowerment of women is everywhere. You can hardly walk down the street, turn on the television, download a podcast or open Instagram without hearing, reading and being exposed to messages about how ‘the future is female’ and ‘2018 is the year of the woman.’ As a side note, the future is in fact equality, but that’s another conversation for another day. What’s relevant here is that in many places where messages of empowerment can be found, they are accompanied with a little asterisk that has a long list of either explicit or implicit terms and conditions.

For example:

1.      ‘WOMEN ARE EMPOWERED TO DEMAND PAY EQUITY*’

*We’ll champion them to demand pay equity as long as we’re not actually required to pay them more equitably, or otherwise do anything about it. We also want to continue asking them to work for free in positions that should otherwise be reasonably remunerated and expect they shoulder the burden of unpaid work in our society (without complaint).

2.    ‘WOMEN ARE EMPOWERED TO SPEAK THEIR MIND*’

*provided they don’t ask any ‘hard questions’ or make statements without the use of diminutive language, apologising for existing or rocking the boat. In which case, they’re simply aggressive and we can’t have that.

3.    ‘WOMEN ARE EMPOWERED TO EMPOWER OTHER WOMEN*’

*provided they aren’t actually required to partake in daily activity that literally empowers women and only at times when it serves their self-interest. For example, when they have written a book about female empowerment and they want to hit the best sellers list.

4.    ‘WOMEN ARE EMPOWERED TO WORK THEIR WAY TO THE TOP*’

*provided they do so exactly as we demand they do and then don’t expect they will be appointed to the top job despite being the best qualified candidate for it, because ‘merit.’

Such conditions fundamentally impact who women are and how they interact with the world.  It limits their participation in it to yet another set of rules. It provides yet another gauntlet for them to run while trying to be both empowered and yet somehow still acceptable or pleasing to society as a whole.

Now, we’re certainly not trying to dismantle all messages, champions and movements of empowerment by suggesting there’s blanket disingenuity. It’s simply not true. What we are saying is that, whether intentional or not, conditional empowerment exists amongst us and its preventing true progression towards equality.

Contrary to popular assumption, such conditions are not only reinforced by men, but also other women. What’s truly difficult about resolving this problem is that it’s all rooted in the same bias, which can often be unconscious.

There are likely four camps of people currently reading this:

1.      Those who will immediately recognise very clearly how conditional empowerment has and is impacting them,

2.    Those who aren’t engaging in conditional empowerment, but have seen it impact others,

3.    Those for whom this piece will be uncomfortable, because they may be realising their bias for the first time and;

4.    Those who are still unsure what role, if any, they’re playing in perpetuating conditional empowerment, nor have seen any evidence of it to date

If you’re in the last group, awareness will be your ally. Pay attention to how you respond to various people in your environment, including women and the decisions you make with relation to matters that impact them. Also pay attention to how people respond to others. Delve deep and question assumptions.

Empowerment and equality go hand in hand. True empowerment is not possible without freedom. Freedom can’t be realised if it’s constrained in self-serving ways, rather than within bounds that genuinely benefit the collective evolution of our society. The collective is only as powerful as our individual unity within it.

So, with all this in mind, what’s your next step?

 

Shevonne Joyce