India is halfway there towards enabling female political leadership. What next? - Hindustan Times
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India is halfway there towards enabling female political leadership. What next?

ByAndré Nogueira, Jitendra Pandit
Apr 14, 2024 04:59 PM IST

To see authentic female leadership, men need to do the work and ask themselves some hard questions, so women can truly change systems designed for men by men

India stands at a pivotal moment. The upcoming elections in the world’s largest democracy will shape not only India’s trajectory, but also the world's. Within the country, a paradigm shift is underway. In the rural heartlands, where 67% of India’s population resides, more than half of the leadership positions in local governing bodies, such as panchayats, are now occupied by women.

Pursuing the question of what authentic female leadership looks like, and needs, will ensure moving towards democratising power structures and designing new systems for transformative action.(PTI) PREMIUM
Pursuing the question of what authentic female leadership looks like, and needs, will ensure moving towards democratising power structures and designing new systems for transformative action.(PTI)

This silent shift holds immense potential for democratising power structures and designing new systems at both institutional and individual levels across rural India and beyond. It is a remarkable departure from the traditional patriarchal norms that have long dominated the leadership landscape responsible for designing India’s modern institutions and the processes deemed credible for dealing with large-scale issues.

Coming from diverse backgrounds and experiences, the women bring a fresh perspective and a deep understanding of grassroots issues to rural governance. They have reached these positions by designing solutions for themselves and their peers, championing inclusivity, equity and sustainable development embodying the spirit of democracy in local action.

We must remind ourselves that the concept of leadership we see today has been shaped by centuries, perhaps millennia, by people of all genders observing men designing and leading governance systems. Governance systems in turn condition how we organise ourselves. So, the question before us now is, with the increase in the number of women assuming leadership positions of local governing bodies in rural India, will we witness authentic female leadership, or w

Design allows us to see systems from algorithmic and behavioural dimensions. Algorithmic dimensions feature parts with stable and reliable information that allow people to make decisions with high certainty. They are algorithmic because the elements in this dimension work like recipes or math equations: the main variables that constitute a problem, and the rules that govern how they relate to each other, are well-known. On the other hand, behavioural dimensions are filled with situational uncertainty due to volatile information concerning social, emotional, and cultural factors that influence people’s behaviour. The elements in this dimension are hard to measure because they often deal with incomplete and fast-changing information, making it hard for leaders to frame a problem and know the types of specialists that would be needed from the outset.

Women in leadership positions of local governing bodies represent progress in the algorithmic dimension of democratic power structures. The processes for being considered and elected are clear. The voting system has a logic that all villagers understand. The obligations and power of those in leadership positions are well-defined, and progress can be understood, measured, and assessed with greater precision.

For instance, after becoming a leader in the Panchayati Raj Institution, Sundar Bamniya, the female sarpanch (elected head of village panchayat) of Bhagsur village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district, followed similar steps for renovating and augmenting basic services of an old Anganwadi centre as her male predecessors, connecting with builders, health professionals, politicians, bureaucrats, and other specialists who know their roles and the roles of their colleagues.

However, it was the elements of the behavioural dimension that prevented her from achieving the objective of fortifying the Anganwadi with basic facilities like drinking water, boundary wall, etc. And therein lies the other half of this transformative journey.

Rural leaders need to recognise and integrate elements of behavioural dimension into designing new systems that can better support women in discovering and developing their authentic female leadership. Importantly, a new kind of leadership will demand a new kind of followership.

This means that men must do the hard work of asking themselves new questions useful to dismantling the systemic barriers that prevent women from embarking on such a journey. Questions like: how should men living in rural areas behave when women take leadership of organisations they have traditionally led? How should husbands, brothers, and friends act to support a woman in her journey to professional success and leadership? How should mothers be supported in the new economy? How should principles of gender equality be introduced to young boys and girls?

Pursuing the question of what authentic female leadership looks like, and needs, will ensure moving towards democratising power structures and designing new systems for transformative action. As a field driven by the logic of what is possible, design has developed expertise in unleashing systemic transformations at both institutional and individual levels.

André Nogueira is CEO of Leap, associate faculty of design knowledge at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, where he is the founding director of the Design Nucleus and Jitendra Pandit is the associate director, Governance, at Transform Rural India. The views expressed are personal.

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