The “Empowerment Cliff”: Why Girl Power Isn’t Working For Women

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The “Empowerment Cliff”: Why Girl Power Isn’t Working For Women

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"You never want to have to depend on a man for money." It’s a lesson Kristin, age 38, often heard from her parents growing up.

‘Or anything!’ Her mom would add.

When Kristin talked about the guys she was dating in high school, her mom would say, ‘Worry about school and then focus on your career. You can think about dating and marriage and kids later – when you’re 40!’

These lessons instilled in Kristin as a young girl helped drive her career as a successful writer and published author. But when Kristin was presented with a big job opportunity that made her the breadwinner in her marriage, her parents seemed more concerned with how her husband felt about it.

“I just think it’s more traditional for the husband to be the breadwinner,” her mother said.

I hear stories like this all the time: the young sports star championed through the ranks of youth soccer, premiere leagues, varsity college and All-American teams, suddenly facing unrelenting questions over whether her athletic career will get in the way of having children. The model UN leader, encouraged with messages of being anything she wants to be only to be met with contempt and disgust when trying to channel that leadership into real political power as an adult.

I call this dichotomy – where we empower girls’ ambitions but undermine those ambitions in women – “the empowerment cliff”. The point at which a woman’s ambitions go from being championed, to being perceived as a liability. When her aspirations are no longer celebrated, but questioned, and even penalized.

Girls taught to be confident and assertive are perceived to be less likable and less hirable when they express that confidence as women in the job market.

Girls taught to lead find themselves more likely to be disliked and disrespected by peers when taking on positions of leadership as women.

Maybe you’ve experienced the “empowerment cliff” yourself – when conversations around the family dinner table shifted from your favorite subjects in school and what interests you wanted to pursue, to non-stop questions about whether you were dating anyone and when you might get married and have children.

When the same family members who signed you up for programs like Girls in STEM or Girls on the Run to “empower” you, started questioning you whenever you acted on that power – in Kristin’s case, when accepting the big job opportunity and becoming her family’s breadwinner.

The promise of girl power is straightforward. By fostering confidence in young girls, these young girls will grow into women who feel empowered to pursue the full scope of their ambitions, including those they’ve been historically locked out of or disincentivized from pursuing, like the notoriously male-dominated spaces of science, math, economics, tech, finance, political leadership and more. Eventually, closing historical gender gaps in pay, leadership and representation.

In the words of Meena Harris, niece of Vice President Kamala Harris and author of the children’s book Ambitious Girl, “When we encourage ambitious girls, they become ambitious women. And ambitious women can break barriers, shatter ceilings, and win.”

By some metrics, the girl power movement in the United States has been a success. Women in the U.S. earn the majority of college and advanced degrees. And prior to the pandemic, women in the U.S. outnumbered men in the paid labor force. But by other metrics, it’s clear that girl power hasn’t delivered.

Despite the gains made by American women in education and labor force participation, they remain substantially underrepresented in nearly all positions of leadership across business and government. They still own significantly less wealth than their male counterparts. And as the pandemic made painfully clear, they are still tasked with the vast majority of housework, caregiving and unpaid labor. Inequities that are exacerbated even further for women of color.

In spite of all of the advances made by girls in the US, gender gaps in power, leadership, control of financial assets and time spent on unpaid tasks continue – preserving long-standing inequality between men and women.

As researchers Robin J Ely and Irene Padavic summarize in their 2020 piece for Harvard Business Review, “Women made remarkable progress accessing positions of power and authority in the 1970s and 1980s, but that progress slowed considerably in the 1990s and has stalled completely in this century.”

Those of us who grew up at the dawn of “girl power” are now nearing middle age and still far from the “power” promised.

Because, as we’ve learned from our own experience, empowering girls doesn’t change anything if that power is not supported in women.

By focusing on “girl power” as the solution to closing gender gaps in pay, leadership and representation, we’ve created a world for American women in which there is power in your potential, but not your reality. Where young girls can be anything they want to be when they grow up – until they are grown up.

Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision via GettyImages

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