Strategies for transforming institutional power

Table of Contents:

We have used the toxic alchemy of institutional power as a metaphor for deep structures and how power works to help us understand and explore the bottomleft quadrant of the Analytical Framework. Figure 3.3.4 depicts strategies drawn from our experience that change agents have used to transform toxic institutional power. These strategies are multilayered and dynamic, and work across the other three quadrants by mobilising individual consciousness and agency, policy change and political strategising - using resources and opportunities, analysis and reflection, and calling on collective voices to demand, push for and make ‘another world possible’. The strategies cascade together to appear again and again in stories of feminists and women’s rights advocates engaged in social justice initiatives. Below is a quick overview of these:

  • Political strategising and refraining are often starting points. The years of work that were invested in strategising and reframing violence against women from being a private issue to a public policy issue, followed by intensive consciousness-raising and collective action, have been translated into scores of new norms, priorities and measures of success as well as growing (though still inadequate) resources for support systems such as shelters, one-stop centres, hotlines and other spaces.
  • • The call in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work emerged after decades of generation of knowledge and expertise by feminist economists to make a case for women’s domestic work to be counted as having economic value."
  • • The recent focus of many governments and the UN Security Council on women, peace and security - including recognition of the rape of women as a tactic of war and a national security issue - emerged (in part) because feminists occupied interstitial spaces within mainstream organisations to co-create more strategic pathways of action and work to connect these institutional insiders with outside activists who effectively stepped up demand. Together, insiders and outsiders continue to push to generate institutional accountability with real consequences for transgression, although the toxic alchemy of power often conspires to thwart these efforts.

In some ways, one of the most challenging strategies to deploy for transforming toxic alchemy is making space for experimentation, reflection and learning. Feminist organisations are starting to recognise this and make provision for it. Gender Action Learning processes use a variety of embodied and reflexive practices, including tai chi, to provoke this kind of reflection. Recently, Gender at Work Associates consulted Remmoho, a South African group that was interrogating problematic gender dynamics within activist collectives, as part of an ongoing effort to combine political strategising with reflection and learning. As Omotayo Jolaosho wrote:

Together with a number of key facilitators, Remmoho members worked to create sessions where participants could freely discuss their daily lives, encompassing and extending beyond their activism, including their familial relationships, sexuality, and living conditions ... Sexuality was an important theme in discussions because it directly affected women’s mobility in the world ... Nomvula, a founding member of Remmoho, noted the transformation that

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came with discussing sexuality: The biggest concept that gave us a breakthrough was being the owners of our own bodies because we realised that as women we don’t own our bodies ...I think sexuality is key when you’re doing gender work because until someone knows how all these gender roles are actually constructed and what it means to me as an individual and as a woman in society you can’t really get a breakthrough (Jomalosho 2018, emphasis in original).

Chipping away at the toxic alchemy of institutional power is very challenging, not least because it is invisible, and has become so normalised and pervasive that it is taken for granted. Making progress in peeling back the layers can look like a small act - such as voting in more women leaders in a union - or can be a massive sea change in perceptions, such as the one provoked by the #MeToo movement.

In almost every example of progress toward equity and equality, however, as layers are peeled back, new manifestations of the toxic alchemy emerge. For example, around the world, information and communication technologies (ICTs) open up new job possibilities for young women, enable flexible work schedules and, through virtual work platforms, seem to reduce traditional hierarchical structures. IT companies such as Google have instituted diversity programmes to promote an inclusive environment to foster a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. However, in July 2017 a Google engineer published an internal memo - the ‘Google Memo’, which since went viral - in which he slams the diversity programme, saying that ‘it is extreme to ascribe all disparities to oppression, and it is authoritarian to try to correct disparities through reverse discrimination’ (quoted in Wakabayashi 2017). Instead, he argues that male/female disparities can be partly explained by biological difference; for example, women generally have a stronger interest in people rather than things, and tend to be more social, artistic and prone to neuroticism. This argument harkened back to an age-old belief that women are suited to specific kinds of tasks because they are biologically built that way and men are more competitive, and showed how hard it is to dislodge such inherently biased views despite education and generational change.

The devaluing of what is seen as ‘care work’ in organisations is a manifestation of gender bias transposed to the workspace that persists today. In GIMMYT, an agriculture research centre which is part of a 15-member network of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (Merrill-Sands et al. 1999, p. 95), ‘those who contributed in terms of strengthening collaborations, problem-solving, facilitating effective work processes, developing new methodologies, or managing tended to believe that their work was invisible’. Not only did this have consequences for individuals in the organisation, but it also militated against the kind of collaborative work that became increasingly necessary for developing farmer-oriented, sustainable solutions in a resource-poor and highly competitive market.

Moreover, the recent focus on sexual harassment is instructive: while individuals have been forced to step down from powerful positions in some instances, organisation-wide power inequities have rarely come under scrutiny in spite of the fact that it is widely acknowledged that sexual harassment thrives in environments where abuse of power is rampant. Organisations have often responded by mandating half-day training programmes for senior managers or engaging lawyers and human resources staff in formulating new policies and investigative procedures: in other words, taking action that remains (for the most part) on the formal side of the Gender at Work Framework. These actions send a strong signal that the response is, primarily, about maintaining the status quo when it comes to organisational power. These are responses that are often more focused on minimising organisational liability than they are on changing the nonns and practices that enable sexual harassment in the first place.

For change experiments to create new nonns and standards to sustain, organisations need to systematise accountability for what Malayah Harper, general secretary of the World YWCA, calls ‘systemic backlash’ (quoted in Wolfe 2018). First, this means enforcing rules about transparency of information on the extent of the problem and how it is being addressed in the organisation. Most of the information held by offices of internal oversight, which are often tasked with investigating transgressions, remains inaccessible and secret. Second, it means changing the rules about immunity when transgressions are serious and break the law. And, most importantly, it means confidential reporting mechanisms and third-party investigation and adjudication. According to one of the women who says she was harassed by Luiz Loures, the deputy executive director of UNAIDS: ‘This is not just one individual, it’s more than that ... ‘It’s about how you establish a system that creates perks for the chosen ones, which is a group of senior men’ (quoted in Ratcliffe 2018). Independent investigation mechanisms and processes can help crack the immunity of privileged senior men.

On the other hand, when organisations pull together multi-sectorial change teams -engaging women and men from all levels of the organisation who have been victims of sexual harassment in formulating policies and procedures, alongside top-level managers - this might signal a change in business as usual. When organisations listen and learn, bring in outside experts and engage in an emergent process of experimentation to understand what will disrupt abuse of power, this can signal that they are serious about interrogating the toxic alchemy and ushering in cultures of equality.

But are organisations now willing to invest in the long hard work of changing toxic institutional power? Without strong internal champions, dedicated resources and a strong push from outside constituencies, good intentions and initial enthusiasm often fizzle out. For example, BRAC - the largest NGO in the world, based in Bangladesh - had an innovative gender action learning programme covering all staff It began in 1994 with top leadership support, and was led by a gender team with 50 programme facilitators to increase women’s voice and leadership, build a culture of equality between women and men staff, and strengthen programmatic outcomes for women’s welfare (Stuart et al. 2017). Within a short time span it achieved phenomenal success in changing discriminatory attitudes and behaviours - creating a safe space to question abusive power, challenge patriarchal values that underpin programmes and build new ways of working and relating. The programme was stopped after seven years, though some of its core features have survived in different initiatives. Now these focus exclusively on community groups. With changes in programme leadership and staff turnover, and a questioning of the value of this kind of investment in the current ‘value for money’ climate measured in dollars and cents, there is little chance for this work to be revived. As a result, an opportunity to genuinely ‘mainstream’ gender equality in BRAC’s programmes by learning from this experience is slipping away.


Our experience has taught us that changes in social nonns and deep structures are seldom caused by single interventions. As long as the rush is to ‘get the policy right’, gender equality policies will rarely take on deep structures directly. Policies and programmes are expected to deliver results in the short term, whereas changing social norms and deep structures — while critical to policy and programme success — take longer to deliver results. Instead, change is associated with a nexus of causalities, including forces in the larger society, social mobilisation, feminist leadership, policy change and resource increases. As well, changes in the deep structure do not happen all at once. Change is likely to be a slow process in which different aspects become more visible over time, are challenged and new ways of working are formulated.

The Gender at Work Framework helps us focus on these interconnected changes and norms and deep structures, and encourages us to unpack and understand what they look like in the particular context in which we work, untangle what is specific and what is universal, and look at how these dynamics interact with other domains of change in the Framework. If institutional power has been an important site for perpetuating gender inequalities and discrimination, it can also be transformed to become an important microcosm for demonstrating pathways for achieving cultures of equality. As our examples illustrate, while discriminatory social norms and deep structures are resilient, they can be challenged - and new, more gender-equitable nonns can emerge. Our most important learning is that when working on complex social change problems where solutions are unclear and pathways are tangled, strategising must include mapping deep structures and a clear intention to change them — or at least factor them in. Doing so is a means of ensuring that gains in other quadrants of the Gender at Work Framework can deliver their intended benefits to all.


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