Moving Beyond the Female Empowerment Industrial Complex

The world of socializing with women and attending events centered on women’s issues is relatively new to me as of the last two years. But as I was exploring a lot of new territory while starting my business, it felt like a good time to investigate. What I discovered during those two years left me with an unsettling mix of confusion, disappointment and excitement.

Stranger in a Strange Land

I spent my formative years as a tomboy climbing trees and kicking soccer balls around with the neighborhood boys. My upbringing encouraged me to explore interests outside of traditional gender roles. Even now, many of my closest friends are men. I work in a male-dominated industry, where I started out as a solar installer and project manager. In my business dealings, I cut deals mostly with men.

Last year, I attended a financial management presentation as part of a special interest group for women consultants. Having crawled out from underneath some significant debts and starting to find success in my own business, I felt ready to hear how I could manage my money in a more thoughtful way. What I was greeted with during the presentation, however, shocked me.

The presenter talked about “manifesting your dreams” and “finding your power”

Through these visualizations, she continued, we could have more positive relationship with our finances. Besides, wasn’t it challenging to manage financial success as a woman in the Bay Area with all the upkeep required — manicures, shopping, hair appointments? I looked around the room as other attendees were nodding with affirmation or understanding. I couldn’t understand what was going on.

To contrast, I attended a different financial management seminar later that year to a mixed gender crowd, put on my online broker, and was greeted with more straightforward and approachable language about understanding your tolerance for risk and criteria to use when evaluating stocks.

I also attended a conference last year aimed at women engineers. The agenda included several inspirational keynotes from high-profile female executives, panel sessions from life coaches and financial managers, and an extensive job fair including several of Silicon Valley’s hottest tech employers.

But what did I gain from this inspirational two day event? I felt good for a few days, but the event was not intended to change any of the structural issues at play. The actions to take I had available to me were to get on several mailing lists, purchase books from various speakers, or join the organization that put on the event.

I also got deeply involved with a women’s membership organization on the premise that I wanted to help women entering my industry navigate and achieve leadership roles. I helped develop programs for conference events. I worked with a small volunteer team to start a program for members. It was really hard work. Hundreds of hours went in to developing these programs.

But in the end, the same story was playing out: lots of inspiration and conversations but no plan for how to address structural issues.

So what is really going on?

Structural Change is Hard

What I’ve unfortunately experienced directly is that many women’s groups and women’s events are mostly about putting the organizer or sponsors in the “warm fuzzies” limelight and/or promote the selling of inspirational books or consulting/life coaching services. It’s experiential clicktivism aimed at women who already have achieved a certain level of privilege- who can afford to attend and have the time available.

A common inspirational language emerges from these events, with phrases like “follow your passion” and “manisfest your dreams” as common touchpoints. Structural issues are not easy to fix. No amount of motivational speaking, “leaning in,” or power circles will change this.

In the days of Tony Robbins and evangelical rock concert personal empowerment events, this women’s empowerment traffic is merging with the greater zeitgeist of the wider empowerment economy. It feels good to go these events. They are highly produced and designed to tap into the part of the brain that sends us “feel good” signals.

In this world, the event is the action. There is rarely follow up of any kind.

The Women’s Empowerment Industrial Complex

Bloomberg Businessweek editor Sheelah Kolhatkar recently published a piece “The Feel-Good Female Solidarity Machine” where she investigated what she coined the “Women’s Empowerment Industrial Complex” — now a multi-million dollar industry.

Kolhatkar poignantly assessed why these events have come into a zeitgeist, “Most political activity around women’s issues in the U.S. has been consumed for decades with a war just to keep abortion legal, a right that was supposed to have been won in the 1970s. Members of Congress spend thousands of taxpayer hours fighting over whether Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of health care to women, should even be allowed to exist. While all the oxygen is sucked up re-litigating these old questions, important issues such as family leave, affordable child care, equal pay, and the persistent lack of women decision-makers get neglected. The women’s empowerment business has risen up to fill the void — for a fee.”

If female empowerment has to come with a price tag, now we’re condoning that only the women who have already achieved a certain level of privilege can be in the forum. And privilege is rarely a topic addressed or given more than a moment’s consideration at these events.

Everyone who attends a women’s empowerment event, regardless of gender, still has to go back to the same system after the cheerleading is over. Talking is not enough and taking actual action that will make impact is hard work, the kind of work that few people or institutions are willing to take or could actually achieve. Even inviting men to be part of the conversation won’t be enough to make impact.

Changing the structural reality is not as simple as a getting a checklist. Getting an advanced degree, a male advocate, a sponsor, or a mentor is not a checkbox you check that gets you closer to a promotion, a “dream job,” or ultimate satisfaction.

Whether or not a woman can “have it all” is a even more distracting narrative. Structural problems cannot be addressed in 1 day or 3 days. These events aren’t working sessions that develop model legislation for access to healthcare, child care, family leave, and equal pay issues. Were women’s events the places where this work was done instead, would they still be as compelling and popular?

Beyond Feminism

Many aspects of late 20th century feminism express narratives about how women should be more achievement-oriented. Unfortunately, the way “achievement-oriented” often plays out is “act more like men.”

While it’s true that women should strive to be more achievement-oriented, society also needs to foster men to be more collaboration-oriented.

Being collaboration-oriented is often considered a hallmark feminine or “weak” trait and undesirable for men to exhibit. But when people — no matter what gender — meet in the middle of collaboration and achievement, they can reach real meaningful understanding the actually moves the needle on structural issues.

Millenial men, and millenials in general, are more engaged with collaboration having in part been raised in an age of social media, the ultimate of collaborative environments. Many aspects of our civic environment exhibit this shift from top-down, command-and-control structures to more collaborative and democratic platforms such as the proliferation of the internet for social and economic uses and the transition to clean distributed energy.

Women are constantly preyed upon from their youngest days with messages that attack their self-esteem, self-image, and interest in pursuing STEM. A cultural framework that praises achievement-oriented male identity above all else enforces this. What can we do?

Meaningful societal change can take generations. We need to move beyond the cheerleading of women’s empowerment events to make meaningful structural changes. While it feels good in the moment, but won’t help us cross the goal line. So at any opportunity and in any setting, we can and should encourage not just female leadership and not just females to be more achievement-oriented, but encourage collaboration-oriented leadership as opposed to condoning cultures of command-and-control achievement-over-all-else. That’s a big ask but still a great start.

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