The Empowerment Fallacy

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

In this essay, J discusses the deal with women in the workplace and in what ways sexism is manifested whether we could see it clearly or not.

Times have changed, indeed. Women can vote. Women can own properties. Women can participate in society by having various jobs and they can also be moms at the same time. Some countries even have women as heads of state. With that, can we say women are empowered?

Let’s break it down word per word. Empowerment is all about reclaiming one’s strength and is usually related to giving back the power to minority groups. Fallacy is the use of faulty reasoning which makes an argument appear better than actual. When we say that women are already empowered and then proceed to ignoring their calls to actionon equal gender pay, on justice for victims of gender-based violence and discriminationbecause we think they are already empowered, that’s where we start to lose the point.

Empowerment is a Process

I won’t discount that the efforts of our feminist foremothers made our lives as women better than it was during their time. But society continues to evolve and with that, new problems are born and brought to our attention. When women weren’t allowed to go to work, benefits for women in the workplace weren’t an issue.

With our increased participation in society, feminists in past generations fought for specialized benefits like maternity leaves and the Magna Carta for Women. However, with the evolving gender spectrum, we haven’t reached a level that includes transgender men and women in those rights and privileges.

Therefore, empowerment is a process of learning new things about the society and continuously fighting for equality, inclusivity, and social justice for those within the intersections. As a ciswoman, I may enjoy some rights that weren’t available to ciswomen of previous generations. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any remaining work left to level the playing field for transgender women, women of color, indigenous women, and women with diverse abilities.

Women at Work

Ang hirap maging babae. (It’s difficult being a woman.) This rings true for me and for many women in our respective workplaces.

From the point of interview, the bias against women is already prominent. A friend once told me that during her interview, she was asked if she had a boyfriend. Even when the interviewer (a man who has been in that industry for decades and has a high rank as well) was just joking or trying to break the ice, I don’t think it’s appropriate at all. Whether an applicant is in a relationship or not does not determine competency, skill, and talent. Same goes for women who may or may not have plans to be mothers in the future.

Once hired, there are many ways in which sexism could manifest. It could be as direct as sexual harassment in broad daylight. Note that the definition of sexual harassment includes sexual favors or advances that may cause an intimidating or hostile environment for the victim. Inappropriate speech or touching is a form of sexual harassment.

But some guys really don’t get it. I’ve had a colleague who continuously squeezes my arm even after I told him I wasn’t comfortable with it. I’ve heard locker room talk in the cafeteria. Who knows what more they talk about when they’re out of the workplace? In their social media groups. In their exclusive inuman (drinking parties). Oh wait, I do. Some guys in the workplace have treated me as one of the boys and they thought I won’t mind if they talked about another woman. In a sexual way. To my face. After I called them out in many ways, they stopped talking to me about these things.

What most of us don’t know is that there are more ways in which sexism seeps in our daily work grind.

1. Slutshaming

Have you ever been called out because of how you dressed at work? Or how much makeup you put on? Or how your behavior on an office function was inappropriate? Are you a woman? If you’ve answered all of those with a resounding yes, most likely you also know of men who violated dress codes and acted wild in a work get-together but they weren’t called out like you were.

As women, we are expected to be prim and proper, always nice and accommodating. Our skirts can’t be too short. Our makeup should not stand out. We should wear uncomfortable shoes. Meanwhile, it’s okay if men don’t shave, or if they wear less formal clothes when it’s not a wash day. Or even when they have an extra shirt button that’s undone. Eyes are too focused on women when it comes to these things.

2. Nice Guy Syndrome

In this time and age, I don’t think chivalry is dead. I have workmates who open doors for me or offer to help me lift a box of cake. They go out of their way to be the nice guys.

Quite ironically, these are also the same ones who slutshame other women coworkers. Or gossip about women who exert a sense of leadership in the office. Or think that coworkers who become mothers should just stay at home because being a mom, in their opinion, is the ultimate job.

These are the nice guys who are adamant in protecting their women officemates by volunteering to drive them home at late nights but also don’t report or fail to call out sexual harassment. They are convinced that women just can’t take jokes anymore.

3. “Just be the right kind of woman”

It seems that some co-workers stand for women empowerment but for the select few only. The women in their workplace who abide by their ideals of a modern woman are received with warmth and support. But for those who remain outside the expected and respected images of a woman (usually transgender women, women of color, and other intersections) they still bear the brunt of selective sexism.

Your Choice, Your Sexism

The examples above show the three kinds of sexism: hostile, benevolent and ambivalent

Hostile sexism is a direct form of misogyny that is usually targeted to women who, in their eyes, dress provocatively. It is rooted in the idea that women are manipulative and seductive and must be put in our places (“Kababae mong tao” am I right?).

Benevolent sexism is a more indirect form of misogyny wherein the intention is to protect or care for women but it actually damages them in the long run. This happens when people (yes, women can be sexist, too) think that women are inferior beings and must be protected. That women “invite the beast”

(See #HijaAko).

Finally, ambivalent sexism is a selective one. It’s like a combination of hostile and benevolent sexism. If you see someone as the “right” kind of woman, you treat them with benevolent sexism. But if you see someone who’s deviant of gender stereotypes, you practice hostile sexism against them. As an example, you’re all #GirlPower when it comes to cisgender white skinny women but actually discriminate against transgender women, chubby women, women of color, etc.

It’s important to understand that both men AND women can be sexist. Even in my previous work environments, I have seen women slutshame others. I have encountered some who believed women belonged only in the home once they got pregnant.

Sexism is not an isolated case. Regardless of how empowered one woman feels, it does not resonate with ALL women. Especially those within the intersections.

So, let me ask again: are we really empowered? If that’s the case, why is it still so difficult to be a woman?

This post is sponsored by Simula PH.

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Spotify

© 2020 The Filipina Feminists