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International Women’s Day, 2023
Five Sharp Questions on Female Empowerment

The following opinion piece is part of series to mark International Women’s Day, March 8.

NORMA, Italy, Mar 7 2023 (IPS) - International Women’s Day is right around the corner and it presents an obvious opportunity to dig into what female and empowerment means for different people.

INXO invited their female CEO and two female board members to answer five sharp political and personal questions.

The following is a shortened version of my answers. It is an adapted version of the original Danish version, which can be found here.

Katja Iversen

– When you hear the words Female Empowerment – what do you think?

I think: “More of that”…. We need more gender equality. We need more women in economic and political power. And we need more women to feel more in the driver’s seat, be more powerful and more valued in their personal and professional lives.

– Where do you see the biggest obstacle to Women’s Empowerment – in the individual woman?

Women are often brought up to be liked. We are often socialized to put others’ needs before our own, to be seen not heard, to smooth conflicts, and not to spoil the party – and taught that we indeed do spoil it, if we are too loud, or claim our rights, and rightful share of power.

Hence, many girls and women don’t articulate their own needs and what they themselves want, but – consciously or unconsciously – live a life in service for others, whether it is the children, the partner, the parents or the workplace.

This is not only an individual problem, but very much also a systemic problem, which is underscored by the statistics, documenting that women shoulder by far the largest share of the unpaid care work at home, as well as the largest part of the unpaid voluntary work at work, adding up to more than US$10 trillions a year.

– … and the obstacle to Women’s Empowerment – in the outer world?

Apart from the current political push back on gender equality, women’s rights, and not least sexual rights, I see three groups of obstacles: systems, stereotypes and language.

Many of the existing power structures and systems in societies are keeping men in power.

The world values production, but not reproduction. We already spoke about the unpaid care work which needs to be recognized, reduced and redistributed. But add to that the motherhood penalty – the systematic disadvantage that women encounter in the workplace when they become mothers – and how sector’s and jobs with predominantly women in them often have lower worth and salaries. And don’t get me started on the tax systems or systematic lack of diversity and inclusion in top leadership.

Then there are the norms and stereotypes: How many times haven’t we heard women in power be called too loud, too much, too aggressive, or criticized on their body, dress, looks? “Good girls” are typically described and defined as sweet, caring, quiet and beautiful, while “real boys” must be strong, fast, energetic and assertive.

Let it be clear that these stereotypes don’t just hold women back, they also hold men back. When men for example, do not live up to the stereotypical image of the ‘real man’, who is tall, powerful, never cries, and earns a lot of money, they too can feel inadequate.

Language is gendered. There are so many phrases in our language that denigrate or disparage women – bossy, nasty, catty, chatty, ditzy, slutty, mousy, moody, flakey, blond, kept. Or reproduce the man as the one with influence and power: Chairman, fireman, business man, manmade, manpower, mankind. And if you want to diminish or make less of a man, there are plenty of gender slurs like sissy, queen, cunt, bitch available – or just tell him that he acts, run or cries like a girl.

Luckily how language reproduces gender norms HAS gained much more attention, and it has begun to change, not least thanks to young people, who are challenging that and gender stereotypes at large.

– How have you empowered yourself throughout life?

You can be what you can see, and I have always had good female role models who were inspiring and strong in different ways – Pippi Longstocking, Rosa Parks, Virginia Woolf, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Christine Lagarde and my grandmother just to name a few.

Also, I followed by my grandmother’s strong advice of getting an education and never become financially dependent on a man.

Even if my family does not come from money, I know I am privileged – and that I am fortunate that my parents instilled in me from an early age that I am good, loved and worthy, just the way I am. I know, I don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and I’m allowed to make mistakes. This has made me confident in trying new things, without fear of failing.

I’m also good at forgiving myself – and others. I actually think, that I am both smart, beautiful and talented, even if I don’t live up to the standard norms. If someone says otherwise, I don’t listen.

In general it is a way of holding women down and back, indicating that SHE is the less capable, less confident, less good at this or that. But it is not the women who need to be fixed, it is the systems.

– … and what is your best advice to other women if they want to empower themselves?

The first piece of advice: You are good enough, you are strong enough, and you have enough worth in yourself. All women should remember that. We are not only worth something in relation to others. We are not only worth something or worthy of something when we give, care and nurture.

The second: We must stand up for ourselves and stand up for each other. Show some good old sister solidarity – and not just to women who look like us, or are privileged like us. Women should play each other good, and lift each other up.

The third: Be aware of what you want and what you desire – and this is both in relation to sexual desire and life in general. Desire (and pleasure) is a good thing and can be a huge positive, driving force, as can breaking habits and being more conscious about the choices you make every day.

Imagine if you for a period of time consistently could asked yourself: What do I want to do? Who do I want to see? How do I want to show up in life today? Imagine what an energy and power that could unleash.

Katja Iversen is Executive Adviser, Author, Advocate, and Professional Board Member

IPS UN Bureau


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