What does it mean to empower others? I asked this question among a group of leaders today at lunch and got various answers like: “help them realize what ‘it’ takes”, “support them”, “belief in their vision”, “lean into the person’s interests and strengths”, “provide tools they need for success”. I realized very quickly that we all had similar, but different views of what “empowerment” is! With no common definition, its is very easy to see where empowerment can also fall through the cracks. Also, who owns the action for empowerment? Does it belong solely to the individual we are empowering, or does it rest on all of us when there are systemic and cultural issues at play?
Today’s topic of conversation with leaders started from a place of what it means to empower others, but quickly fell into a rabbit hole of human anthropology. So, let’s start with women in particular and all the trendy hashtags…#girlboss, #notoriousRBG, #EmpoweredWomenEmpowerOtherWomen. Are you empowered yet? Tennis great, Serena Williams said it best, “Every woman’s success should be an inspiration to another. We’re strongest when we cheer each other on.” While I absolutely agree with those sentiments, I’ve learned that as humans, we can also talk out of both sides of our faces. I've been working on some research that spawned from an article in Glamour magazine about the vitriol hate Beyoncé was receiving on social media for her latest Adidas/Ivy Park campaign. I wanted to figure out why people do that, namely women (who often SAY they want to see more women in powerful positions) who rip women apart when they get into prominent roles. Little did I know how this would blossom to many implications and classes of people: gender, racial, socio-economic, and more….
Now back to Beyoncé. Queen Bey, herself. She was recently met with an onslaught of abuse on social media regarding her appearance when photos dropped of her new Ivy Park
high-fashioned athlesiure wear collection. Terms to describe her ranged from “tired”, “a lump”, “manly”, to a little more elaborate description of “She’s looking large, her age and tired.” Ouch! What is worse is that it seems the uglier the comments, the more “likes” it received! And majority of those comments were from other women! What did Queen Bey do to these commenters? Probably nothing to a large majority of them. So, what gives? Is it just a matter of “misery loves company”? …prepare for the rabbit hole, you too, will fall into with me!
Think back to your philosophy and psychology days in school. Been awhile? Ok, let give you a refresher. Plato had an idea called “The Great Chain of Being”, which is the idea that humans lie at the top of the food chain. There are the plants, they are eaten by the animals, which in turn are eaten by humans. While I’m probably doing a disservice to my dear friend Plato of explaining this, that is the essence. Then there is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a five-tier pyramid that shows human needs, and how one level of the tier needs to be achieved before moving on to the next tier. It starts with “Physiological needs”, then “Safety”, on to “Love and Belonging”, “Esteem”, and lastly, “Self-actualization”. Maslow argued that if anyone was struggling in a single tier, they could not move on to the next tier and ultimately get to the level where they could reach their potential. Once again, my apologies for the general explanation. However, in “The Great Chain of Being”, Plato never described the sort of human predation that happens amongst us when we are all vying for similar resources within those tiers.
Before Beyoncé’s critics can show “Love and Belonging” according to Maslow’s hierarchy, there’s a breakdown happening in the tier below, “Safety”. Items in this tier are things like, employment, healthcare, personal security, etc. Am I basically saying people are lashing out because they aren’t having these needs met? I don’t have to, there’s already a study done on the topic. In Italy, where there are the biggest income inequality gaps between social classes, it was discovered that those on the bottom spewed the most venom on social media versus the other socio-economic classes. Individuals cannot get to a place of love and belonging if they are struggling day to day to pay their bills, wondering if they will have a job tomorrow, or if they should schedule that doctor’s visit if they can’t pay for the care. As a result, that stress can send our brains into its reptilian element of fight, flight, or freeze, when we see we are all essentially fighting each other for resources. In that moment, we try to tear others down to gain our superiority.
With the rise of technology and social media, people are retreating from in-person activities and organized clubs for that social interaction that humans inherently need. But we are finding solace and belonging with “likes” and retweets to show our superiority as well as tribal acceptance. With social media, you are more likely to become siloed in your thinking and who you surround yourself with (by who you like, follow and befriend), which drives extremist views (essentially there is no one in your tribe to counter your opinions).
But I digress. How does this have anything to do with empowerment? When we see limited representation of any class, race, gender in the upper echelons of power (celebrity, CEOs, executives, etc.), we sometimes, unwittingly, undermine each other as we are all vying for our positions in society. And specifically in the case of female representation, women are less likely to recommend other women, as they don’t want to be seen as championing their own gender. But men don’t champion for women either. But what about the hate and human predation that comes from those in power? There’s also a psychological idea for that called “the fear of falling”. Those in power don’t want to jeopardize their position by bringing others in. So as long as we have the severe disparities between social groups, this will continue to be a roadblock of empowering others.
Dr. Stephanie Johnson of the University of Colorado – Boulder, has spent her career researching diversity and inclusion. Her model of unconscious bias, to conscious bias, to conscious inclusion, to unconscious inclusion, is how we get there. The more we can recognize how systems stack the odds, human psychology fuels the fire, and understand our own biases, the more we can move to a place of empowerment. Remember, rarely do doors get opened for others without someone on the inside opening the door and reaching out a hand to pull that person through. Be that person that opens the door.
So, did we solve all the worlds problems today with the group of leaders I met with for lunch? Nope. But we each learned a bit more about how we might be able to advocate, open doors, and share the responsibility in an empowered society. And for that, I think it was time well spent.