Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed feminist, it’s pretty difficult these days not to notice there’s a new and rejuvenated focus on empowering women and ensuring they have a voice in our society. From the impressive slate of women recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, to the heartbreaking rise of #MeToo that began to hold men accountable for their abuse of power to sexually harass and assault women, attention has turned to what we as a society – and individually – should do to better empower those who form more than half our country’s population.
While I’m actively rooting for anyone who even acknowledges there’s a problem, I’ve seen far too many giving lip service to the issues and not presenting real solutions – and not just men. Women are sometimes their own greatest enemy, and often, without realizing what they’re doing.
I recently sat through a sales pitch for a multi-level marketing company aimed almost exclusively at women. It’s no secret that these companies make their bread and butter more from recruiting salespeople to join their ranks than the actual products they sell, and that they have become popular amongst women with young children looking for a way to earn money without sacrificing stay-at-home motherhood.
This particular sales pitch leaned heavily on the idea that this sort of home-based business empowers women to “have it all”. The products sold by the organization are also primarily geared towards women: makeup, skin care including the all-important anti-aging line, and of course for “internal beauty”, a wide variety of diet and nutritional products. The entire organization and its products were pitched, in a nutshell, as another form of female empowerment.
I don’t begrudge anyone who is trying to have a home-based business nor am I against the idea of taking care of oneself; most of us want to feel good and look attractive. But I do take issue with this organization’s philosophy and product portfolio being sold to me as female empowerment. This leads me to some steps I think we could all agree to take that could actually give women the power they seek and so richly deserve in our society.
- Work on male-female equality in the workplace AND in the home. I’m all for women-owned businesses and enabling the flexibility to work from home while raising your children. My career choices changed dramatically when my older daughter was born and I started my own PR consulting practice, working from home, because I couldn’t bear the two hours of commute time and 10+ hours per day my corporate job demanded. But what we really need are corporations to step up and make it easier for women to climb the ladder: equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare and flexible working hours. Studies show that children – both girls and boys – benefit from having a positive, working mother role model in the household, so policies that allow women to work benefit everyone. But perhaps, more importantly, let’s make it easy – and socially acceptable – for men to have the same workplace flexibility so they can share in the household and parenting responsibilities. My husband was the odd-man-out when he took a month’s paternity leave to stay home with our daughter. I know far too many women who shoulder the full burden of childcare, parenting and household activities whether or not they are working full-time. We must make it easier and more acceptable culturally for men and women to share these duties. I don’t know about you, but I never want to hear another man say that he is “babysitting” his own child.
- Stop talking about “anti-aging”. From creaking joints and sagging skin to a forgetful mind, no one enjoys the process of growing old . But the fact is that we are all aging – every day – and there is no known scientific way to stop it. So why are products that cater to “anti-aging’ so popular in our society? We all want to feel and look as good as we possibly can as we age, but as women, by constantly focusing on the aspects of aging we don’t like, we’re missing out on the opportunity to embrace the positive aspects of aging. Gaining wisdom, having adult relationships with our children, or just being able to say “I don’t give a rat’s ass about that” because we’ve earned the right to – these are all aspects of aging that we should revel in. And the constant focus on anti-aging as it relates to beauty is probably the least empowering thing we can do as women for each other as it puts the focus squarely on our appearance and diminishes the value of our minds and our accomplishments.
- Compliment your daughters – and the other women in your life – on more than just their appearance. “What a pretty, little girl!” “You’re so beautiful!” “You look so thin!” I’m not saying that these kinds of compliments are never appropriate. But the amount of times we comment on young girls’ appearances dwarfs the number of times we tell them how smart, capable and independent they are. Boys, on the other hand, are rarely complimented on their looks, but more for their athletic prowess, their accomplishments in the classroom and their ability to complete tasks on their own.
- Quit putting yourself down. It’s not humble or self-deprecating to constantly look in the mirror and put yourself down. As women, we are sometimes taught early on to not be vain, to brush aside compliments and praise, to be grateful, humble and “nice”. Combine this instinct with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, where every picture can be altered, filtered and airbrushed, and you can see why young girls grow up to be women who are constantly analyzing their every fault in the mirror. If you look in the mirror when your daughters are standing beside you and complain about your newly-formed eye wrinkles, or stand sideways and grab at a slightly-protruding belly and call yourself “fat”, remember that your daughters are watching you and modeling your behavior. And let’s not forget the boys: young boys who continually hear their mothers complaining about their looks learn the lesson that appearance matters above all else and the women in their lives need to conform to some unachievable beauty standards.
If current events are any indication, we have a long way to go as a society when it comes to female empowerment. And while the recent spotlight has been squarely on men and their attitudes and behaviors – and rightly so – women also need to take a long look at their own attitudes and behaviors and start stepping up their empowerment game.