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A blog about gender, culture and organizational change


By Gender at Work Media / August 23, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

This toolkit developed by Srilatha Batliwala and Michel Friedman helps build the capacities of women in leadership positions. Based on the work done for CREA’s Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation—Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, the toolkit has been developed in collaboration with Oxfam. You can download it here. We chatted with Srilatha about what it covers—gender, power, deep structures and what it takes to create safe spaces.  

1. What are some of the most important tools you have talked about in this toolkit? 

I think each one is useful in a particular way, in a particular context and what each individual experiences with each tool is highly subjective and varied. Each exercise does something different, at a different level, or works for understanding different aspects of one’s internal life or organizational environment. But there are probably some that have a greater potential to create “AHA” moments—the deep structure mapping, for instance, or the personal histories with power, or the “I'm Okay You’re Okay” grid. 

2. Some of the exercises in this toolkit are intense and challenging such as the one which requires introspection on one’s own relationship/ experience of power. What kind of mindset or attitude is important for participants coming into it? What must they be prepared for? 

I think all the exercises require a considerable degree of openness, honesty and self awareness. But it is difficult to be totally self-aware unless one is also quite mature. People who feel easily threatened and insecure, who always need to be in control, may not get much out of them, especially the “SELF” exercises. For instance, in order to locate yourself in the “I'm okay you’re okay” quadrants, you have to be prepared to admit—even if it is only to yourself—that you’re primary position is “I'm not okay, you’re not okay”. Fortunately, a lot of the SELF exercises don’t demand that you share your insights with other people but they do expect you to act on the insights they give you, or to begin to explore how you can change negative patterns. 

3. What about the other side of it? What is important in a facilitator? What kind of attitudes or openness must the facilitator bring into this? 

Because of the sensitive issues and emotions that most of the toolkit exercises will inevitably throw up, we have emphasized the importance of the facilitator’s role and skill in managing these. The facilitator’s guide was added to the toolkit precisely for this reason. But the most important factor is the need for the facilitator to create a safe environment for the process, which means establishing and sustaining norms of respectfulness, honesty, non-judgement, dealing constructively with negative emotions or conflict that may emerge. This means the facilitator herself must be careful to keep an open mind, to remain non-judgemental even when opinions or attitudes are expressed that conflict with her own. At times, however, the facilitator will also have to have the courage and capacity to name and visibilize the dynamic that is causing problems, and manage the anger or hurt this might cause. The larger purpose of each exercise, and of the process as a whole, must remain the overriding priority for the facilitator, and individual sensitivities and reactions have to be balanced with this. THIS IS HARD WORK!! Which is why we have pointed facilitators to several resources that can help them do this, especially if they are not experienced facilitators – in situations, for instance, where a staff member may play the facilitator’s role. Nevertheless, we realise that even the most excellent facilitation may not work with leaders or organizations that are deeply threatened and resistant to change. 

4. The tookit talks about creating safe spaces for participants. What are “safe spaces” and why are they important? 

The kind of openness, honesty, and deep interrogation of the SELF, of organizational systems and practices that the toolkit demands, cannot be conducted or completed in an environment where people are afraid, tense, anxious. They may fear reprisal for speaking up, for naming the “elephant in the room”, or simply for sharing their real feelings honestly. So it is critical for the atmosphere to feel safe—meaning a space where there will not be judgement, reprisal, counter-attack, or blame—where each person is treated with respect and as an equal, where everyone is given the benefit of the doubt and the right to articulate their opinions and feelings, and who is trusted about wanting to contribute to the collective goal. It is difficult to describe a safe space in words. It is something we feel in our gut, something experienced. It is being in unsafe spaces that makes one realize the quality of a safe space. 

5. What are some of the ways in which safe spaces can be created? 

This is a complex process and cannot be described in a few words. The toolkit provides some ideas on this in the facilitator’s guide, as well as links to other resources that provide guidelines for creating safe spaces. Michel, in particular, has shared some of her practices in creating safe spaces for groups riven with conflict, anger, and even violence against each other.

6. In the toolkit, you have a section on why articulating Values and Principles (as an organization) matters. What are some of the challenges that organizations may face while doing this? 

As you know, the leadership toolkit is based on the concept paper that I wrote much earlier for CREA: Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation – Clearing the Conceptual Cloud, in which I proposed the idea of the feminist leadership “Diamond” comprising the four Ps of Power, Politics (purpose), Principles and Practice. I theorized that only when the four Ps are in alignment, when the power that leaders have is tempered by and accountable to the purpose for which they are leading (the politics of the organization or movement), and the principles and values they must uphold and promote, that their practices will reflect feminist ideology. But usually, organizations and leaders don't bother to spell out their politics / purpose or the principles and values of the organization / movement, or believe they are obvious or implicit, and so they don’t create any clear mechanisms for checking whether the organization’s internal and external practices are in sync with these values or not. So an important first step is to articulate values, and then to figure out how you are going to monitor the implementation / practice of these values. 

The main challenge in this process, though, is the temptation to put down a lot of high-sounding values and principles with no corresponding set of measures or indicators of what these will look like in practice. Which is why the toolkit offers an example of how you translate values into what we call “operating principles”, which are much more amenable to assessment. 

7. You have talked about power in different contexts and forms including ‘hidden power’ or ‘invisible power’. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about that? Are these concepts that are recognised and acknowledged among feminist organizations or is it a challenge for organizations to look within? 

I would say that hidden and invisible power are not widely recognized or acknowledged in most organizations, leave aside feminist organizations. Most organizations—private companies, government departments, NGOs—would rather not deal with these dimensions of power, because they are uncomfortable realities. In rural districts of India, for instance, I have seen senior government civil servants send their wives to represent them at various events (like the inauguration of a women’s income generation program, for instance) and these women think nothing of introducing themselves by their husband’s designation (I am the District Magistrate, said one, I am the Superintendent of Police said another). This is a highly normalized form of hidden power in rural India. 

In feminist organizations, there is even greater resistance, sometimes, to recognizing or dealing with these forms of power because of all the myths and assumptions embedded there. For example, the belief that they should avoid all hierarchies and create “flat” organizations (often resulting in hidden or invisible hierarchies), the sense of discomfort with power and formal leadership and the mythology that is created that power is distributed equally, the delusion that women can’t behave oppressively to other women (or anyone else), the assumption that feminists will inevitably lead differently, fairly. For more information and an appreciation of the importance of hidden and invisible power—especially in organizational contexts—I would refer readers again to the Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation concept paper on which the toolkit is based, and particularly to pages 32 - 45. 

8. The toolkit talks about organizational ‘deep culture’ , the hidden sites and processes of power and influence in an organisation that construct its actual culture. It includes informal or unstated values and systems of reward and recognition like gossip, rumours or the culture of staying late or working on weekends. In some countries where these are ingrained ways of working (where there is no recognition of ‘overtime’ for example), how hard is it for organizations to break out of these systems? Have you frequently seen a commitment to do so on the part of management?

Personally I have seen very few organizations in my context in India and South Asia, willing to acknowledge the existence of a deep structure, let alone tackle the dynamics that operate within it. Even some of our most famous NGOs have revolting gender-biased or caste-based practices (like dress codes for women staff even in their offices, or subtly ensuring that people of certain castes do not handle food) that continue to this day. Part of the problem is that most people don’t challenge these unquestioned norms for fear of losing their jobs, or being penalized or stigmatized in other ways. There is a culture of silence and acceptance that gets constructed, a mirror image of the silence and acceptance of our culture as a whole. I have seen change happen only in contexts where there were leadership changes, or leaders themselves recognized the destructive power of what was happening in the deep culture, and decided to address it. But this is very, very rare. The need to tackle deep cultures is only now being recognized. And frankly, even when this happens, it’s not as though we have a vast number of people who can help organizations work on this. There are very few skilled people who can walk organizations through the process of unearthing their deep cultures and resolving some of the more problematic dynamics hidden there. So the whole area of organizational deep culture / deep structure is a huge challenge.


By Gender at Work Media / August 8, 2014 / Loading Disqus...

How can international aid professionals manage to deal with the daily dilemmas of working for the wellbeing of people in countries other than their own? This is the question scholar and activist Rosalind Eyben takes on in her new book titled International Aid and the Making of a Better World (Routledge). A lifelong development practitioner, Eyben has looked at her experiences with aid-recipient countries, head office and global policy spaces, to critically examine her own behaviour, and in so doing, encourages us all to do the same. Packed with vignettes, stories and dialogue, this book urges anyone working in development to adopt the habit of reflexivity when helping to make a better world.

We chatted with Eyben about the book and her writing process:

Tell us about the writing process. What triggered the idea of the book? How long did it take to write? Was some of it already written earlier, in different forms perhaps?

The book had a long gestation! The idea first came to me when working for the UK Government’s aid programme in Bolivia and Peru from 2000 to 2002. I got no further than a page of jottings and a possible title. When I moved to the Institute of Development Studies, I wrote a couple of papers on the gift and power theme. One of them jointly written with Rosario León, a Bolivian development professional, is a narrative in two voices. We separately reflect on our experience in a shared enterprise and this approach to a chapter in an academic book encouraged me to continue experimenting. Though it is academically grounded, I hope that the stories, conversations and photographs in this book make it an easy read. As a colleague, Rosario helped me recognize how power works in relationships. It was not just a matter of being self-aware of my own power as a senior official. There is also invisible power exercised through the internalisation of norms and beliefs about how the world should be, which limits the possibilities of relationships.

In 2006, for a paper at a conference on ‘Development People: Professional Identities and Social Lives’, I decided to use my own life as a case study. I turned to Andrea Cornwall for advice. She helped me think about ‘stepping stones’ or nodal moments when I became aware of some significant change in my understanding of myself and the society in which I found myself. These helped make sense of my life as I recovered memories and spun them into a narrative.

I am passionately interested in how each of us is shaped by the historical moment into which we are born and how we contribute to shaping the history that the next generation is born into. I asked four women friends of similar age and professional experience--‘fellow travellers’—to reflect with me on their life experience. All five of us—and many others of our age working in development—were shaped by and contributed to two great emancipatory moments—the end of colonialism and the second wave of feminism. Otherwise privileged by class and race collective, our relative marginalisation as women professionals helped us recognize there was more than one way to seeing the world. By 2009 I was ready to invite critical feedback on my first draft from friends and colleagues who asked ‘who is the book for?’ And ‘what is its purpose?’ I wrote a note to myself:

I aim for my book to be good read, it should attend to the “nodal moments” of my life in relation to international aid and aid practice and thereby enable the reader insight or understanding both into myself as aid practitioner and make the link between biography and history that Mills described as the sociological imagination. The book should reveal a lively and critical self-awareness; it should tell a recognizable story and portray character development in the face of serious issues within a complex setting and should offer a new perspective on trying to make a better world. On this basis, in 2010, I made a new outline and started afresh.

What were some of the emotional processes and challenges you faced while writing the book? Were there memories that surfaced, experiences you relived again?

Much of the impetus for the book derives from an emotional need to come to grips with what I saw as my parents’ betrayal of the truth when in pursuit of social justice. Their state of denial about this resonated strongly with respect to my own international aid practice. Not owning up to what I know—and therefore failing to ask myself what I should do with that knowledge—has blocked my efforts to help make a better world. My fellow travellers gave me back some of the funnier memories. Catherine reminded me of absurd dinner parties in Khartoum where there was little choice of food and ‘we had to wipe the sand off our nice china plates’. I also had to confront some things I hadn’t forgotten but didn’t want to remember.

In 1972, three months before submitting my doctoral thesis based on fieldwork in a community in Burundi, I learnt that many of the people I had got to know there had been murdered by the government as part of a nation-wide repressive response to an attempted coup. My thesis felt pointless. I did not know how to process this horror and like an undigested meal it has remained a hard lump within me. I found it impossible to write about it in the first draft of the book so two years ago I asked my daughter Karin to accompany me on a visit to Burundi as an Action Aid trustee. (Karin has worked for twenty years in Northern Ireland helping local communities work across sectarian divides). In Burundi we met an amazing woman, Maggy Barankitse. In her work to sustain the fragile peace the country has recently achieved, Maggy insists that the terrible memories everyone in the country carries with them should be openly discussed and confronted. Having killed each other, she says, we the living, have a duty to stop such terror happening again in the future. Maggy taught me that reflexive practice for a better future means being responsible for talking with each other about the pain and difficulties of the past we would rather sweep under the carpet. Remembering and forgetting are inter-linked processes.

In Chapter Three, I describe how I took advantage of my whiteness to barge my way to the head of a queue in a Kinshasa hospital to give my child’s life priority over the lives of other women’s children. It seemed then a perfectly normal thing to do. Almost, but not quite normal, otherwise I would not have remembered it. It was however difficult to write about it.

Also painful to remember are professional dilemmas. Chapter Eight includes an account of how I failed a young woman in northern Ghana when she asked me to help her escape from a forced marriage. Did I make the wrong decision? I use this and other incidences to encourage my readers to remember and then debate with themselves or with their friends the difficult dilemmas they also have experienced.

This is a book that calls for reflexivity and self-criticality. How much of that do you think is currently practiced? How hard will it be for people to pick up the book and put these concepts into practice—will it take a considerable degree of personal transformation on their parts?

Coming late to reflexive practice, I have written this book because I wish something like it could have been available when I first became involved in development. I understand reflexivity as a practice that both identifies the tacit assumptions I make about the world and then turns the lens back upon myself, enquiring into what is it about me—the interplay of history and my life story—that has generated such assumptions and what is it I am hiding from myself. This book is the story of how I learned, to the degree that I did. Reflexive practice is always work in progress. I have particularly benefited from the mutual learning with the reflexive practitioners whose research I had the privilege of supervising during their studies for a Master’s degree on participation, power and social change. The book includes some of their reflections.

One student wrote about how tiring the process of self-scrutiny was. She felt ’naked’. But she gradually realised the positive effect it was having on her professional work and relationships. She also found that sharing her stories of change deepened her reflexive enquiry. And sharing may encourage others in learning to navigate a path through the contradictions of making a better world.

Rosalind Eyben has recently retired as Professorial Fellow in the Participation, Power at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) where her interest focused on power and relations in the international aid system; where she convened the global policy programme of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Consortium 2011; and afterwards developed a new area of work on why and how unpaid care remains invisible in the world of development policy. She was founder and co-convenor of the Big Push Forward, an international initiative that unpacks the international aid system’s politics of results and evidence. She previously worked as a development practitioner in Africa and Asia. Among her other books is Feminists in Development Organizations (2013) co- edited with Laura Turquet, and Relationships for Aid (2006).



Earlier this year, Women Unlimited published feminist scholar Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey which brings together her key writings of the last twenty years. In the book, Batliwala traces the transformation empowerment has undergone since the 1980s, analyzing why and how the concept has been depoliticized and diminished by the state and aid agencies.

In her response to the book published in OpenDemocracy, Andrea Cornwall said the book reaffirms that empowerment is more than just a development buzzword. It brings alive the purpose of empowerment through stories of change. "Srilatha Batliwala’s Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey tells stories about how change happens in women’s lives that reclaim and reaffirm an approach to empowerment that looks and acts very differently. And it is a reminder that these ways of thinking about and doing feminist empowerment work are far from buried in the past: they are just obscured from view, like the hidden pathways that are changing women’s lives that may be missed by those who travel on development’s motorways," says Cornwall.  

We took this opportunity to chat briefly with Srilatha Batliwala about the book and the writing process.   

1. When did you first start thinking about writing this book? Was there an incident or a trigger that made you decide to write it? 

The idea for the book was born on January 24, 2010, at a dinner before the Bangalore launch of Palestinian author Suad Amiry’s second book, “Menopausal Palestine.” My dear friend and noted feminist journalist Ammu Joseph, and Ritu Menon, founder of Women Unlimited (an imprint of Kali for Women), proposed that it was high time I put together my key writing on women’s empowerment and related issues, produced over the past twenty years, into one volume. I was sceptical at first – I didn’t think there would be much interest or demand for such a volume, and that some of my earlier work on the subject was outdated. But they insisted I was wrong, that many people were still using some of these pieces because they were still relevant, and that the volume would have a lot of value for many people trying to understand and work on women’s empowerment, movement building, and so forth. So I decided to do it! 

2. Tell us about the writing process. What was it like for you to revisit your experiences and pull them all together?  

It’s important to emphasise that the only original writing that I did for this book was the introductory and concluding chapters, and the introductions to each of the three parts of the book – the main chapters are all articles, concept papers and such that I had written much earlier, starting with a piece “Why I am a Feminist” that was written in 1986! But I greatly enjoyed writing these prefatory pieces… Ritu encouraged me to use these as spaces to reflect on the context I was in when the various articles in each section were written, and to talk freely about the people and experiences that influenced my thinking at that time, and what and who these pieces aimed at and impacted in some way. This allowed me to bring the personal and subjective into the book – to bring myself in – rather than restricting myself to academic analysis or intellectual distance. Many readers have told me that they have greatly enjoyed these introductory pieces, some even more than the main articles.  

3. Who are you hoping will read the book and how would you like it to affect them? 

I think the book is useful for a wide variety of audiences, but especially for activists, academics and donor agencies concerned about gender inequality and other forms of social exclusion, and about how to organise and empower marginalised people, whether they are women or not. I have generally written for activists – trying to push activism to be more analytical, more informed by theory; but on occasion, I have also written for academics, where I have tried to push theory to be more responsive to practice, to ground realities. In reality, though, I have been surprised to find a lot of the writing I have done for activists being prescribed and used in the academy, as part of courses on gender/women’s studies, development studies, public policy, social movements, civil society, and international relations. So I hope that a diversity of readers interested in social change processes will read it and find it informative. I wish, though, that the many hundreds of grassroots women I’ve worked with, who inspired so many of the ideas in the book, could also read it. Maybe some day some of them – or their children or grandchildren – will! 

'Engaging with Empowerment - An Intellectual and Experiential Journey', is available from Scholars without Borders.


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