Defining Power and Why It Matters: Securing Women’s Equality and Women’s Futures

Incoming students at Rutgers University take part in a geology adventure as part of a weeklong program to encourage women's interest in science, math, engineering, and technology, August 5, 2004.

This week, Germany hosted an international summit focused on women’s empowerment as a strategy to drive economic growth. The summit, the third such gathering, was launched by G-20 countries to devote much-needed attention to creating thriving economies by maximizing women’s full participation. High-profile attendees at this year’s summit—dubbed the “W20”—include President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is representing the United States, apparently as part of her broader interest in working on women’s empowerment in the White House.

Why is Germany’s summit on women’s empowerment relevant for women’s progress here in the United States? The answer hinges on how empowerment is defined and how women’s current status, challenges, and needs are understood. The phrase “women’s empowerment” can mean different things to different people. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “empower” as “to give official authority or legal power to” or “to promote the self-actualization or influence of.” Simply put, to empower someone is to give that person authority that is officially or legally sanctioned—authority that enables them to exert influence that is backed by an official imprimatur of legitimacy.

But that definition, standing alone, does not answer important threshold questions that are critical in the U.S. context. Specifically, what are the barriers that have created a need for women’s empowerment? What is the power that women need, why do they lack it, and how can they get it? In other words, what are the problems we are trying to fix, and how should we fix them?

Unfortunately, one key problem that needs fixing is an old story encompassing obstacles that limit women’s autonomy and ability to control their futures. These obstacles are embedded in our laws, institutions, and even our culture—obstacles visible and invisible but no less pernicious or impactful.

  • Women continue to encounter old stereotypes and attitudes that limit their opportunities. Entrenched views about gender roles and responsibilities still carry with them expectations about what women should and should not do. Women are expected to take on most of the family care responsibilities. And although many women work outside the home, there are often negative assumptions and biases about their priorities, work ethic, and abilities. These perceptions are often particularly harsh for many women of color, who must confront multiple biases based on their gender, race, and ethnicity.
  • The paid work that women perform is often undervalued in comparison with that of their male counterparts, and women continue to work disproportionately in jobs with lower pay and fewer benefits. Women of color have among the lowest earnings, jeopardizing their economic stability even more. Furthermore, the unpaid work that women are expected to perform—such as caring for family—is often considered to be women’s responsibility rather than real work with real value.
  • Women continue to confront structural impediments that limit their full participation in different aspects of society. They are often expected to take a do-it-yourself approach to their challenges—to treat them as personal problems rather than systemic or institutional failings. For example, too many workplaces are still rooted in the past and lack strong work-family policies to respond to the realities of today’s changing families. Thus, policies such as paid family leave and paid sick days are viewed as special luxuries rather than baseline protections expected in any modern workplace.
  • Women are still woefully underrepresented in the higher ranks in the workplace and among the policymakers and decision-makers who develop and implement our laws. As a result, women’s perspectives and needs are often not prioritized or elevated to the same status as those of their male counterparts. Furthermore, perhaps because of this perceived unequal status, policymakers and decision-makers frequently take action to dictate or impose requirements limiting women’s autonomy or rights. Many of the harshest restrictions on women’s reproductive rights, for example, are aimed at constraining their ability to make their own health decisions without government interference.

All of these obstacles work to create, perpetuate, and exacerbate a power imbalance in different aspects of society that disadvantages women and undermines the overall economic stability of working families. Given these challenges, what are the changes needed to move women forward?

  • A comprehensive strategy that focuses on the range of obstacles that women encounter. Picking one issue to address in a vacuum while ignoring others will do little to have a meaningful impact on women and their families.
  • Strategies that respond to the diverse experiences of all women. For example, policy solutions that would help wealthy women but not low-income women, solutions that would help parents but not other caregivers, and solutions that would ignore the different challenges stemming from the intersection of race, gender, and ethnicity are inadequate and noninclusive.
  • Solutions rooted in equality. All women deserve an equal chance to succeed and enjoy the same rights and privileges of citizenship as men, unencumbered by barriers stemming from their status as women.
  • A conception of women’s empowerment that goes beyond an individualized focus. Meaningful policy solutions must be more than piecemeal proposals made in a vacuum. They must encompass a broader vision of structural change and fundamentally shift the status quo. Women must be able to access and exert the power necessary to operate with autonomy and independence just like their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, the limited policies advocated by the Trump administration thus far fall far short of the transformative change women need. The administration has touted potential proposals for child care and paid maternity or parental leave, but its child care plan put forward during the campaign would favor wealthy families, and its paid leave proposal would exclude a large majority of those with caregiving needs. At the same time, the administration has pursued other policies to erode women’s access to health care, pay transparency, domestic violence programs, civil rights enforcement, and more—all of which affect women’s lives.

The approach to address the needs of women being advanced by the Trump administration ignores the interconnected challenges women face and the multifaceted solutions needed in response. More importantly, this approach lacks an understanding of the structural change needed to create a level playing field for both women and men to succeed. If the Trump administration is interested in women’s empowerment, it must enact policies that will offer real power in practice. Gender-neutral policies that recognize the diverse caregiving roles both women and men play in their families; policies that better position workers to uncover pay discrimination and strengthen enforcement through pay data collection and pay transparency; policies that enable women to make health care choices without government micromanagement—these are the types of policies that can empower women. What the administration needs to do is truly commit to moving forward these comprehensive strategies that can make a difference in women’s lives.

Jocelyn Frye is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.