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Sallie Krawcheck: Why I’m Over Women’s ‘Empowerment’

Jan 17, 2017

Okay, I’m awake.

I really felt like we were making progress. The pundits were certain that our first female president was on the way, the U.S. women killed it at the 2016 Olympics, women were progressing at work by "leaning in" and “knowing their value,” and New York Magazine even declared single women as “our most potent political force.” My Twitter and Facebook feeds seemed to agree—both were filled with people convinced that progress on feminism was gaining steam.

But…

We’ve stalled. We’ve stalled visibly and dramatically. It's clear now that even before the presidential election, amidst all of the energy and excitement, we had already stalled.

Hillary Clinton's loss is probably the most prominent example of the still-sturdy glass ceiling, but there are others. Consider the progression of women to top levels of business: Despite study after study demonstrating that greater senior-level gender diversity and better business performance go hand-in-hand, fewer women run big companies in the U.S. than men named John. Women receive just a single-digit percentage of venture capital funding, despite posting significantly better returns than men-only teams. It’s going to be a long time before we achieve gender parity on boards in the U.S.: an estimated 40 years at the current rate. And it’s going to be a long, long time before we close the gender pay gap globally: an estimated 170 years—much longer for women of color.

Obviously, what we have been doing to push for gender equality is not enough. To make progress, we need a more active stance.

To begin with, let's throw out a few closely-held ideas that just aren't playing out. One: the belief that progress is inevitable. Yep, that’s gone. Two: that ground, once gained, is held. And three—this one may really surprise you—I for one think we should get rid of “empowerment” as a defining word of feminism.

The term has always bothered me slightly. I thought it was because it was so widely used, or that I've been involved in too many toothless women's “empowerment initiatives." But then I looked up the meaning:

Empower (verb): to give power or authority to.”

That’s it. That’s the issue: to give power or authority. To give.

So, to empower women, power must be given to them. Presumably by an entity that already has it. And that entity is the patriarchy. This also implies that women must be on the receiving end, waiting—politelyto be empowered. Very Victorian-era courtship, isn’t it?

It smacks of men as the reference point—the “givers.” And from that point, it’s calling Katie Ledecky the female version of Michael Phelps. It’s Donald Trump saying he broke the glass ceiling for women in construction. It’s women earning 78 cents for every dollar a man makes for the same work. The list goes on and on, if we look to be given power.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept of “empowerment” has been well-intentioned. It’s my sweet dad thanking my then-husband for putting me through business school. And of course, because my father’s frame of reference was that the man in my life would foot the bill to give me opportunity, would “empower” me. Here's the catch, though: I was the one who paid. I was the one who earned the money and then invested that money and my time in business school to create my own opportunity.

It can’t be about "empowerment" any longer. To make real progress, it has to be about power—using and growing the power we women already have.

Case in point: Lean In and #LeanInTogether. With Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg ignited an energy around the advancement of women in business that had all but vanished in the previous two decades. She didn’t do it by urging young women to wait until power was handed to them; she did it by helping them recognize the power they already had. She hit on something that was enormously impactful, shifting women’s mindsets from passive to active. How? Through sharing practical tools for getting ahead. It wasn’t about tip-toeing; it was about women coming together and demanding to be heard by the corporate powers-that-be.

Then came the next phase, a campaign called #LeanInTogether, which is essentially about men “empowering” women, through such actions as helping out at home and pointing out gender biases at work. It wasn’t nearly the spark that Lean In was. I believe that’s because it revolved around men giving power to women, rather than helping women recognize that they already have it. And nobody really wants to do the laundry if they don’t “have to,” do they?

So, here are the steps I believe women must take to acknowledge that power, use it, and most importantly, build upon it.

1. Recognize that we have to be the ones to start conversations about diversity in the workplace.Words can be powerful. I believe we have to have what the visionary Ellyn Shook, head of talent at Accenture, has termed the “courageous conversations.” Those are the ones in which we point out (respectfully) to our colleague that (s)he let John talk and talk, but interrupted Susie every time she opened her mouth. And to another colleague that (s)he gave credit for Jane’s idea to Joe.

These are the conversations in which we call out that, while likeability and success are positively correlated in men, they are negatively correlated in women. In which we note that the research says women have historically had to calibrate their communications so that they are neither too girlish or too “aggressive” (known as a “double bind”). In which we remind everyone that women are told again and again to “smile,” not just while walking past a construction site, but also while running for president. One of us starting these conversations won’t do much. The more-than-half-the-workforce that is women having these conversations can do quite a bit.

2. Actively manage our careers. In the workplace, women are recognizing that they need to move from having mentors (a mentor being “an experienced and trusted advisor,” according to the dictionary...in other words, sort of passive) to more “sponsors” (someone who actually advocates on your behalf at work). Today, women have three times as many mentors as men do—but half as many sponsors. Women are recognizing that this needs to shift, and smart companies are moving from mentorship to sponsorship programs.

3. Advocate for other women.This means overcoming the old rules, under which women and people of color have historically been dismissedif they advocate for other women and people of color, respectively. We cannot allow this to be the case any longer.

4. Stop hoping for a promotion that’s not coming. Instead, start a business at which you want to work. While most venture capitalists still don't get it, rapid advances in technology are allowing women to start companies in way they never could before. In addition to being good for the founders themselves (and, you know, growing the economy), a bonus is that many of these businesses also better serve other women. Businesses like TaskRabbit and Rent The Runway and DryBar. And also like my own Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women.

5. Recognize that money is power. Look to it grow it and use it. While women control a great deal of money today, we are still not financially equal with men. To get there, we must focus not only on closing our gender pay gaps, but also on more actively managing our money as a means of closing our “gender investing gap.” This might not intuitively seem like a major issue, but it can cost women hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of dollars over their lives.

6. Buy from and invest in other women. Try apps like BuyUp Index to make sure you're shopping with companies that have diverse leadership teams or invest funds that feature companies with women at the top (Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund or the SHE ETF Index).

This is already beginning to happen in the start-up world, where the Tory Burch Foundation, Broadway Angels, Astia Angels, Plum Alley, BBG and Aspect Ventures, all led by women, are investing in women-led businesses (and all thus presumably reaping the superior returns that businesses that are led by diverse teams provide).

It was important to me that my own Ellevest counts among its investors not only traditional funders, but also a group of successful women, including Venus Williams, Ariel Investments president Mellody Hobson, venture capitalists Theresia Gouw and Sonja Perkins, and businessperson Andrea Jung and Karen Finerman, among others.

7. Donate to causes that are important to you. As we close our money gap, we'll be better able to support organizations like Emily’s List, She Should Run, Planned Parenthood, Women for Women International; you name it—whatever is important to you. Women are more philanthropic than men and the impact, as we have more money and we donate more money, can be significant.

8. Show our push for equality to our daughters….and our sons. I’ve taken a few public hits in my career, and I never hid the pain of it from my children. Nor did I hide the regrouping and rethinking that occurred after each one. After all, that process allowed me to re-emerge and go on to build a more impactful—and more engaging—career path than the one I had been knocked off of. While I won’t say that this latest setback in the progress of women is a “blessing,” I would say that it’s an opportunity to, among other things, show our children what is important to us and to demonstrate some important lessons about resilience.

9. Finally, recognize that other women doing well helps us all. It helps blaze the trail for others; it helps provide role models; it can help close the gender gaps we all face. In the old world of business, there was often just one seat at the leadership table for women, two at best. That meant that only so many women could advance. But in a world where women recognize the power that they own—and where technology can upend the traditional rules of engagement—one woman winning doesn’t mean another loses. We can all win together.

And with that, I vote we say a final farewell to “empowerment” and hello to actively growing and using the power we already have. We must do this for ourselves.

Sallie Krawcheck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest,, a digital investment platform for women. She is the Chair of Ellevate Network, the global professional woman’s network, and the Chair of the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund. Her new book, Own It:The Power of Women at Work, is on sale today, January 17th.

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