30 Ways To Actually Empower Women
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
What does empowering women actually look like in day-to-day life—especially for fellow women?
We've come a long way on the road toward true gender equality, and yet sometimes it can feel like progress has halted completely. Women make up less than a quarter of the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, and as of last year, women held CEO positions of just 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies. The gender pay gap persists as well, the worst of it falling on the shoulders of women of color; Latina women make 54 cents for every dollar a man makes. Meanwhile, maternal mortality rates are soaring, with black women carrying the brunt of the suffering, being three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy than their white sisters. One in five women have experienced sexual assault, and the odds more than double for trans women of color. Women are also twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression.
Clearly there's still a long way to go. But the good news is, there's power in collective action and in community—and today, women are more revved up and connected to each other than ever before. "Women showing up and supporting other women is ancestral and tribal," wellness educator and certified spiritual practitioner Lalah Delia tells mindbodygreen. "It speaks to, and nourishes, one of the most foundational aspects of who we are as feminine beings. We gather and sustain one another by nature. And while we are each a powerful force alone, we are all the more powerful when we're united in sisterhood."
In honor of International Women's Day, we spoke to our community of wellness experts, as well as the influential thinkers, educators, and activists leading the movement for greater equality and justice, to understand how women can better support each other on a daily basis in every single part of their lives. That includes everything from work to motherhood to emotional well-being and beyond.
Here are 30 concrete ways women can empower other women—and thus themselves:
1. Validate women's self-expression.
Women's narratives are vastly underrepresented in the media and popular culture. So when you see a woman taking it upon herself to share her story and let herself be vulnerable, acknowledge that act of bravery. Jolene Brighten, functional naturopathic medical doctor and mbg Collective member, specifically points to social media as a place to enact validation: "If you see a woman brave enough to make herself vulnerable and share her personal story on social media, let her know you see her and you honor her truth," she tells mbg. "If you see another person putting down her personal experience or bullying her, step in and gently remind them that this is her truth and you applaud her for speaking it."
2. Compliment her mind and soul—not just her body.
Women already get a lot of commentary about the way they look. If you're looking to compliment a woman, Brighten suggests describing her insides rather than her outsides. "Try to compliment a woman on something other than her looks once daily," she says. "We all like to be told we're beautiful, and we also love to hear we are brilliant, kind, dedicated, strong, etc. Pay forward the unexpected compliments."
3. Check your assumptions at work.
Identifying as a woman does not preclude you from bias or automatically mean you're free from responsibility when it comes to oppressing others. "Recognize the unconscious biases you might have against other women based on their race, age, sexual orientation, gender expression, physical abilities, body type, and socioeconomic background," Liana Naima, wellness writer and multidisciplinary energy healer, tells mbg. "Check your own unconscious biases and uplift the voices of women of color in your field who are facing additional biases in the workplace. Unconscious biases oftentimes lead to systemic discrimination. Addressing this issue starts with checking your own beliefs and encouraging the discussion of biases in your workplace when you notice a lack of inclusivity and diversity."
4. Offer support to all women, including the "strong" ones.
"We all have that one friend who appears to have it all together," Naima adds. "They are thriving in their personal and professional life from what we can see. We cannot help but wrongfully assume there is nothing difficult going on underneath the surface."
Black women are especially placed with the burden of being too "strong" to experience pain—despite being more at risk of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Don't make assumptions about which one of your woman friends most needs help and support, Naima says. "Gift all of your friends check-in time to see how they are caring for their mental and emotional health. 'How are you?' can come off as a superficial question, but asking 'How is your mental and emotional health?' cuts through superficiality."
5. Prioritize solitude.
Women are socialized to prioritize other people's needs over their own, Naima explains, so one effective way to empower women is by validating and encouraging their alone time.
"We tend to forget about the importance of unplugging and separating ourselves from others to reflect on what's happening in our lives," she says. "Alone time is not only great for your overall well-being, but it can also increase the quality of the relationships you have with other women. Schedule alone time on your calendar so you have the opportunity to reinvigorate your mind and body. Encourage other women to schedule alone time and to not be afraid to eat lunch alone when they are at work and need to decompress."
6. Always be ready to signal-boost other women.
Leadership teams, conference lineups, speaking roles, and media sourcing all overwhelmingly prioritize men and male voices. As a woman, if you're granted access to these spaces and pulpits, see how you can lend a hand to other women who also deserve a spot on the stage, says Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., MPH, sex researcher, co-director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative, and professor of public health at the University of Nebraska.
"We have got to know who the other women are out there doing good shit in areas that intersect with our own work," she tells mbg. "Always, always, always have a list of names at the ready to recommend and signal-boost."
7. Pass the mic.
"Sometimes empowering yourself means stepping back and allowing someone else into the spotlight," Jawed-Wassel adds. "I never agree to an opportunity without first thinking, 'Is there another woman (particularly a WOC) who knows more about this issue than me?'"
8. Bolster whisper networks that benefit women.
Jawed-Wessel also says to make sure other women have access to the beneficial information you have—men have had access to "boys' clubs" for centuries, so it's important for women to actively take on the mantle of disseminating intel to each other that can help them succeed in their careers.
"Share your experiences in safe, trusted networks of other women and femmes," she says. "Did you negotiate a strong maternity leave package? Tell others about how you made that happen and who championed you. Did a superior say or do something inappropriate? Warn other women. I would not be nearly as successful as I am today if it were not for this type of insider trading."
Heading up a search committee for new hires in your department? Go out of your way to extend support for the women candidates being considered, Jawed-Wessel says. "If we make an offer for a position to a woman, before she makes a decision, I make a point to tell her what myself and others successfully negotiated for in terms of salary and benefits. A better package for her harms me in no way at all and sets the bar for her to do the same for women who come after her."
9. Talk about your periods.
People with vaginas severely lack information about their bodies because of puritanical fear of female sexuality and desire. The best way to demolish this stigma is to be open about our bodies, says Alisa Vitti, functional nutritionist, founder of FLO Living, and author of WomanCode. "Talk to your friend about your period and ask her about hers," she tells mbg. "As Michelle Obama said, 'I think it's the worst thing that we do to each other as women, not share the truth about our bodies and how they work.'"
Likewise, always acknowledge that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women. Avoid gendered language when talking about menstrual cycles and vulvas unless you're specifically talking about women who have them.
10. Invest in women-run businesses.
Women who own business are constantly shortchanged. Research shows male entrepreneurs are twice as likely to raise $100,000 or more as their female counterparts. So go out of your way to support businesses that are owned and/or run by women, behavioral scientist and personal development coach Dinorah Nieves, Ph.D., tells mbg. "Many female entrepreneurs lack adequate support in the form of funding or sweat equity," she says. "Invest your time and/or money in competent, capable women who are making an impact."
11. Disagree without dismissing.
"We won't all always agree with one another just because we share a gender identifier," Nieves says. "As women, however, we often do share the experience of having been dismissed and left feeling unheard and like our point of view was unimportant. So let's not do it to one another. If a woman makes a legitimate point (even if it represents an opposing view), honor her intelligence and courage before voicing your contrasting opinion. 'I hear you, and that makes sense. And I know it's not necessarily easy to have these conversations. My perspective is…'"
12. Make sure she knows she doesn't need a reason.
Women tend to be people-pleasers, says Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., board-certified clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at Bay Path University, and executive coach. When possible, make sure your women friends understand that they’re allowed to do things for no reason other than I want this.
"When you hear your friend start to give an explanation of her actions, after listening for a few minutes, gently remind her that 'just because you want to' is a sufficient reason," Hallett says. "She has permission to make the choices she wants, without justification. The idea of actively giving yourself permission is very empowering and reinforces your ability to act in your own best interests, treating yourself with love and compassion."
13. Bring women into the conversation.
Men do 75 percent of the talking at business meetings, research shows. With this in mind, Hallett suggests actively asking women colleagues for feedback during meetings. "For maximum effectiveness, approach your colleague before the meeting and tell her you'd love to hear her thoughts/opinions on a specific topic as you feel it would be of benefit to the group," Hallett says. "This way, she is prepared for the ask, and you are also demonstrating her value to the group as a whole."
14. Directly thank women for their gestures, however small.
Many studies have shown that women do a lot of organizational and emotional labor, much of which frequently goes unpaid and unnoticed. One great way to make women feel valued is to directly acknowledge women's efforts toward helping the team, the family, or the household, Hallett says: "Notice other people's actions, and then make time to express your gratitude for some small action they have taken, such as refilling the copier paper, turning a report in early, or asking you about your day. Being 'seen' is very empowering. The little courtesies and helpful actions are often overlooked, particularly when a woman does them, and yet these are some of the most helpful behaviors in maintaining a smooth and collaborative working environment."
Publicly thank women for brewing the coffee, tidying up the PowerPoint, or scheduling the kids' medical appointments. Or better yet—do it yourself so she doesn't have to.
15. Talk about sex openly.
Straight guys orgasm from 95 percent of sexual encounters, whereas straight women only get off 65 percent of the time. Not cool. Women are also saddled with all kinds of stigma, judgment, and shame when it comes to their sex lives, all of which heavily weigh on their mental health and sexual satisfaction.
One way to even out the playing field when it comes to sex is to simply talk more about it, Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH, relationship and well-being coach, tells mbg. "Create nonjudgmental spaces to talk about sexuality and desire," she recommends. "A lot of the time in my work I find that the main question I get is 'Am I normal?' So whether it's fantasies they want to explore, physiological or hormonal changes that affect performance or responses, or shifting relationship dynamics, talking about these things can help women release shame and find out that a lot of other people experience similar things."
16. Encourage each other to accept sincere compliments.
"Women have been socialized to wave away compliments about their abilities, their accomplishments, their self-representation—the list goes on and on," Melamed adds. "Encourage each other to simply say 'thank you' when someone genuinely acknowledges your hard work, achievements, or fabulous style. Owning these things first of all within oneself and through the acknowledgment of others allows one to be seen and to see themselves in a powerful way. Batting off compliments are somehow seen as a part of being well-mannered, but we should help each other recognize our greatness!"
17. Overtly subvert gender norms around children.
Gender socialization starts at birth. Newborn babies assigned as "girls" at birth are held longer and spoken to in softer voices than the "boys," research shows, and boys are encouraged to explore their environment while girls are told to worry about getting dirt on their dresses. Parents and anyone who interacts with children should make offsetting these gender roles an active priority, says Bobbi Wegner, clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine and adjunct lecturer in child advocacy at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
"Be a role model for young girls, paying close attention to statements about gender behavior ('That's a girl toy,’ 'That's a boy activity,' etc.)," she tells mbg. "If you notice these phrases around them, acknowledge it and say something different. Always encourage girls to be bold and brave, from their very earliest moments."
18. Say you're a feminist.
Ditch the qualifiers and the hesitation when it comes to using the F-word.
"Say you are feminist, even if it's uncomfortable. A feminist is just someone who believes in equal rights for all," Wegner says.
19. Prioritize women of color, trans women, disabled women, and all the most disenfranchised among us.
It's important for all women—just like anyone else—to make sure they're constantly stopping to examine their own privilege, says Rachel Ricketts, racial justice advocate, lawyer, and healer. "An empowering question to ask, particularly when we find ourselves or others feeling defensive in discussions regarding oppression, is: Whose comfort is most being prioritized right now? If it isn't that of the most marginalized womxn, it's time to stop, reassess, and start again," she says. "This is of critical importance because it can be all too easy to center ourselves and our own comfort during challenging conversations, intentionally or otherwise, but creating equality and liberation for all womxn demands that we operate from spaces that best prioritize and protect the most disenfranchised among us."
20. Sponsor other women.
Mentoring women is a key way to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, but psychotherapist and executive coach Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, suggests taking mentorship a step further: "Women are 'over-mentored' but 'under-sponsored,' meaning a specific form of mentoring angled at getting someone promoted, by someone with power and influence to do so," she says. "So one of the biggest favors you can do for a fellow female is that in an organization, when you spot someone you'd typically mentor, you could sponsor them or educate them on this option."
21. Do not get competitive with other women.
"Stop competing with each other in the 'race to the bottom,'" Neo adds. "There are groups who get off on who is doing more and/or suffering more. There is overt shaming ('Used an epidural? Had a C-section? You bad mother!' or 'Not a stay-at-home mom? You are hurting your child's development!') without understanding the individual's circumstances and choices. Sometimes it can help us feel vindicated by thinking we're doing the 'right thing,' but shaming others makes everything worse. Dimming someone else's light does not make yours shine brighter."
22. Support mothers dealing with rowdy kids in public.
"Wink and smile at a momma whose kid is having a meltdown in public. Including on a long plane flight," says Aviva Romm, M.D., integrative medicine doctor, herbalist, midwife, and mbg Collective member. "It's usually more painful for her than it is for you—and having your support and encouragement can give her the lift and confidence she needs to get through those rough moments."
23. Call attention to other women's suffering, even when you're not among them.
Most women have it rough, and when you consider intersectional identities, there's almost always some subsection of women who probably have it worse. "Embrace all women's suffering as your own," Dr. Romm says. "It's not that you have to suffer, but if there is inequality for women anywhere, it affects all of us. Pick a movement to support or get involved in—whether it's distributing period products, volunteering at a shelter or on a hotline, or running for office!"
24. Thank women.
"Tell the women in your life you love and care for them," Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., American Board Family Medicine–certified physician and mbg Collective member, tells mbg. "Often they forget, and often you don't feel appreciated. When you show your appreciation to those around you, they will reciprocate their feelings."
25. Go out of your way to make women feel good.
Listen—women are under some pretty heavy pressure to adhere to totally impossible standards of beauty and behavior. Whenever possible, try to remind them that they're doing a pretty damn good job.
"When I see a woman who is beautiful to me, I always tell her she's beautiful," life coach Shazia Imam tells mbg. "I used to feel shy to say it, especially to strangers and worrying they would think I'm weird! But I decided to let my own self-doubts go and say it—whether it's at a social event, at the cash register, or even on the street! And every single time, the woman smiles back to say 'thank you' with a huge smile on her face. Often with the words, 'You made my day!'"
26. Speak up about gender issues whenever possible.
"Early in my career, I sent a simple email to the VP of our 25,000-plus company to say thank you for an employee satisfaction survey she sent firmwide. I also offered to support initiatives moving forward for women, because I genuinely cared," Imam says. "She responded back within minutes and had me create and head up the Women's Forum at the company! This small act (that I believed wouldn't even be noticed) was the gateway to creating networking opportunities, fun activities, and leadership meet-and-greets for the female employees. It was pivotal in many of the women's careers, including mine. ... Don't underestimate the power of your voice and the doors that will open if you put it out there!"
27. Support women's work.
"I have experienced firsthand the struggles of putting myself out there, cultivating confidence, and making the sale," functional and integrative dietitian and nutritionist Nour Zibdeh, M.S., RDN, CLT, tells mbg. "When a friend wrote a book, I bought it. When another started a podcast, I shared it on my social media feed and continue to do that. I was just recently at a fundraiser event and bought a silent auction item from someone who offered a personal yoga session. I definitely wanted the yoga session, but a part of me really wanted to support her and her business. When I find a woman doing something great, I make sure I share her message online and offline."
28. Help women take time for themselves.
"When it comes to actually slowing down and taking the necessary time we need out for self-care, we sometimes need reinforcements to make sure we actually slow down and do so," Lalah Delia tells mbg. "Being a reinforcer for one another in this way could look like helping to create the space and container for self-care time to actualize. Such as: covering the workload or chores for a sister friend, picking up her children and giving her time off, helping to extract her from her rigid routine and life for a while, running her a spa-style bath at her place or yours, scheduling her a massage or other spa treatment, making her a nourishing herbal tonic to slow down and gather herself, and just basically helping her to take a pause from her life, and not allowing her to resume until she is refueled, re-nourished, and feeling like herself again. This is a great way to be in service, as vessels, to the ones we love."
"In public spaces, we can empower and affirm one another by showing up and letting our collective and united presence be made known," Delia says. "This could look like showing up at an event in support, leaving supportive comments on online posts and online works, arriving at a meeting together, sitting side by side at an event or meeting, and also in terms of safety, by walking to our vehicles, to the bus, or train together."
30. When women support you, return the favor.
Last but not least, make sure you're giving back to the women who give to you, Delia says. "Sending positive messages to one another is a great way to empower, encourage, and sustain one another. It's important that this is reciprocal so that all involved are benefiting and doing their part to nourish the friendship. Don't let the other women you care about carry the friendship all alone. Show up, pitch in, and mean it. That's empowering."
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