Rethinking women’s empowerment in the regional workplace

The very term “empowerment of women” assumes an inherent lack in a woman’s abilities, opines the Saudi princess



I recently came across an article titled Why Leaders’ Can’t Fully Empower Employees published back in 2008. It brought back memories from 2016, when I was offered a job that appeared to be an upgrade in terms of position and salary from the one I had at the time. I was excited, but yet hesitated to accept the offer because I had experience working with the organisation in the past, not as an employee, but closely enough that I had become familiar with their work environment and many of its employees. As a result, I couldn’t help having some reservations about whether or not this would be the right place for me.

An outdated leadership model
As a subject-matter expert in my field, I knew the value I could offer, but I wanted to ensure that I would be working in an environment that would be enabling and not crippling as a result of bureaucracy. What I needed to deliver on my expertise was autonomy, flexibility, and a dynamic work environment.

I expressed my concerns to the senior-level official who had offered me the job by explaining that there appeared to be a lack of autonomy in a role that would require time-sensitive implementation of a programme, multi stakeholder involvement, and the adherence to a periodic reporting schedule.

He assured me that my assigned department would be operating under a more modern approach. And then he said: “Don’t worry, I will empower you.” Those words only served to reinforce my concerns and supported my views on the limitations of a top- down authoritative approach to leadership.

A leadership model that is reliant upon one corporate figure empowering another is an outdated and limiting one because as a result of restricting autonomy it limits the real value any single employee can contribute to an organisation. Further, it perpetuates the myth that any one individual in a leadership role has all the answers and all the authority. And finally, being told that I would be empowered, was in and of itself disempowering because it implicitly forced me to assume a hierarchical dependency instead of depending on my own professional abilities to get the job done.

Modern leadership models
Today, in order to foster thriving sustainable economies and highly digitised and decentralised workplaces, organisations need to increase autonomy and enable their employees to fully utilize their hard-earned expertise.

The article I mentioned above brings to light new concepts of leadership that can better meet the needs of our increasingly complex world. It helps to dispel the myth that those in leadership positions are best equipped for directing the thinking and strategy for growth and development.

New approaches to leadership include shared leadership, relational leadership and level five leadership, and they encourage groups to work and think together. It helps to move employees and corporate leaders away from dependency and into inter-dependency, which is a much more fruitful and dynamic model. When employees are empowered by autonomy it means that there is complete trust in their ability to make a valuable contribution, and I just wasn’t convinced I would be granted the autonomy I needed to contribute my best.

An enabling work environment
A new organisational paradigm that can benefit corporations and their staff is one that considers how best to make the most of human capital and human resources. The aim should be for adaptability, development, humility, an openness to the unknown, and trust. As a result of digitisation, economies are constantly changing and rapidly evolving. We cannot continue to assume that those in leadership positions are all-knowing. In the absence of bureaucracy and limitations on autonomy, we enable employees at all levels to lead by contributing a wider breadth of ideas and perhaps even more dynamic results.

Rethinking the empowerment of women
Space needs to be made for growth, and in particular when it comes to enabling and empowering women. By its very nature, the term “empowerment of women” assumes an inherent lack in a woman’s abilities, and her capacity for autonomy without interference from an external source. A shift in how we view women in the workplace and what they’re capable of contributing is essential if we are to truly experience the benefits of empowerment.

Lessons learned
When considering a professional opportunity, don’t get distracted by the fancy job titles of the organisation. Think about the value you want to add or what you hope to accomplish, and evaluate if the work environment is conducive to enabling your professional development. Find a workplace that fits you, instead of trying to make yourself fit into a workplace. When you opt for a thriving work environment, you’ll find yourself fully supported to share your expertise, knowledge and vision. And more importantly, you’ll get to experience the energy and excitement that comes from working in an environment that fully supports the way you think and act on your professional knowledge.

Dr Reem Bint Mansour Al Saud is a women’s development expert in Saudi Arabia