The Effects of Women’s Empowerment Messages on Perceptions of Women’s Role in Gender Inequality
Although women’s underrepresentation in senior level positions in the workplace has multiple causes, women’s self-improvement or “empowerment” at work has recently attracted cultural attention as a solution. For example, the bestselling book “Lean In” states that women can tackle gender inequality themselves by overcoming the “internal barriers” (e.g., lack of confidence and ambition) that prevent success. I sought to explore the consequences of this type of women’s empowerment ideology. Study 1 found that perceptions of women’s ability to solve inequality were associated with attributions of women’s responsibility to do so. Studies 2, 3, and 5 experimentally manipulated exposure to women’s empowerment messages, finding that while such messages increase perceptions that women are empowered to solve workplace gender inequality, they also lead to attributions that women are more responsible both for creating and solving the problem. Study 4 found a similar pattern in the context of a specific workplace problem, and found that such messages also lead to a preference for interventions focused on changing women rather than changing the system. Study 5 documents the weakened effects of messages that explicitly explain that women’s “internal barriers” are the products of “external barriers” obstructing women’s progress. Study 6 found that women’s empowerment messages are not successful in helping women feel empowered, but rather make them feel more responsible for causing workplace gender inequality. Studies 7a and 7b suggest that these negative consequences go beyond women’s empowerment and also apply to empowerment of African Americans in the context of racial inequality. In sum, these findings suggest that self-improvement messages intended to empower women to take charge of gender inequality may also yield potentially harmful societal beliefs, and that the processes demonstrated with women’s empowerment messages may apply to other disadvantaged groups like African Americans.
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