Does power have to be male?

On a balmy Bangalore morning, amidst flower sellers and office goers, as my driver stopped the car at the raised hand of the traffic police woman, he remarked confidently that even if he sped past her she would not do anything. When I asked him why, he reduced the volume of the music to tell me that nobody listens to a woman and that had it been a man, things would have been different. It set me thinking as to why a woman in the police uniform was not able to wield the same power as her male counterpart.

Women participating in local governance

Sarpanch Kamala Devi (in blue saree) in her office at the Gram Panchayat Kankradara, District Dungarpur, Rajasthan. (Photo credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh. Source: Flickr Creative Commons)

At the back of my mind were the findings of the Commission (in 2012) that surveyed nearly 3400 policewomen in UK to reveal that four out of ten women contemplated leaving the force due to a host of factors, one of which was disillusionment regarding career prospects.

Definitions of power in sociology and political science have always given it a solidity that is sometimes absent at the ground level. Weber and Marx for instance, have given precedence to fixed structures/laws/rules and control over economic means to define power/bureaucratic power. However, rational legal authority, penal powers and economic control may not be the only ingredients necessary for wielding power. Constitutional authority maybe vested in a person but in the eyes of those on whom such authority is exercised, she may be ‘powerless’ as in the eyes of the cab driver. This is especially so when such authority is exercised by women. This characteristic of power, the fluidity and dynamics, which give an active agency to the people on whom power is being exercised, has a direct bearing on the efficiency of governance structures.

How do the dynamics of power and organizational structures interact with gender – the social construct of the sexes? Why is it that sometimes, mere authority is not enough to wield real power?

In 2014, when our office organized educative programme on tax withholding provisions for public sector salaries, I observed this at close quarters. In kiosks providing information (tax rates, forms, online filing et al) people preferred to go to the ones where the men were. Most often, the information received from the women officials were counter verified with her male counterparts to ensure that they have been told the right facts. However, this was not the case with information imparted by the male official who was probably perceived to be ‘professional enough to know the full truth’. In some cases, where the women were unable to clarify or explain things and had to take help from a colleague, she was often ridiculed or bullied by the public. Often, the public were more respectful and patient with the male members of our team.

Why such variegated response to rational legal authority based on the sex of the official? What explains these different reactions to public officials? If all are vested with the same constitutional authority what is that one variable that elicits different responses from the public? The answer lies in the gender stereotypes that refuse to wash away like a stubborn stain on the developmental fabric.

The hostility that women in power face from public is matched equally by the antagonism that they face from the men in the workplace – be it subordinates or superiors. Women find themselves posted by their seniors to safe zones in government like public relations, training, grievance redressal et al which are people-centric, where their nurturing-caring talent is perceived to be handy. As a corollary, they are considered unfit for technology-intensive, data crunching profiles which, despite being qualified to handle, are not given merely on the assumption that women cannot handle the mathematics-science-technology-statistics menu. This is echoed by Prof Mangai Natarajan (Women Police in a Changing society Back door to Equality, 2008, Ashgate) in her study of police women in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where women in police force where initially given duties of secretarial support and juvenile homes.

In 2008, Veena Sikri, a career diplomat with 38 years of experience shot off a letter to the then President of India alleging gender discrimination in postings. Kiran Bedi, the top police officer in India, alleged gender discrimination when she was overlooked for a post in 2007. It also remains to be seen whether a woman would ever be appointed the Cabinet Secretary, the highest position for a career civil servant in India.

Women are considered to be ideally belonging to the private sphere -home, family and at best, neighbourhood/localities (the emphasis being on the familiar and safe than the strange and unsafe environment). Any woman who steps out of this allotted safe/private sphere is unwelcome and treated as an impostor who not only has crossed the sacrosanct threshold of home but also snatched posts and privileges that could have gone to the men who are presumably better workers. Once in public offices, they often find themselves to be at the receiving end of negativity from both public and her immediate work sphere that is mostly men.

Where does this leave the women in power corridors? In a corner, stymied and led to believe that her contribution to the organization does not add up to much or even that she is not expected to perform. It then spirals into a self-fulfilling prophecy where the incentive for her to excel in her profession diminishes and over time she acquires a ‘reputation’ for being a non-serious worker. And when that happens, everybody sits back and sends a sigh of ‘I-told-you-so’.

The point of thinking aloud these observations is not so much to explain or defend the woman in government structures but more to crystallize this problem as the first step to its resolution. The increase in the number of women in workspace (both public and private) in traditional societies have gone a long way in dashing patriarchal stereotypes and change of attitudes. Yet, there is so much more to be done for the real change of hearts to come about.

Given the increasing proportion of women in government jobs, it will be worth the time of every department/ministry/organization to consciously draw women employees into the centre stage, give them real voice and power and make her feel that her contribution to the organization is appreciated and valued. At a time when there is the loudest demand for improving government delivery mechanisms, introducing measures to mainstream women employees/officials and undertaking gender sensitization measures in government work place will be the right thought and the right effort in that direction.

Susan Thomas works with the Government of India and has handled various profiles for the past decade and more that has involved tax assessments, capacity building, quasi judicial functions, budgeting and personnel management. She is currently studying for an MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government. The views she expresses here are purely personal and not reflective of the view of the organization she works for.

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