Broken Ceilings and Woman Power in T&T

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“When one woman breaks a glass ceiling, all women feel a sense that things have been opened, where they weren’t before.”

Earlier this year, when Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar won the post of Political Leader in the United National Congress’s internal party elections, Dr Gabrielle Jamela Hosein, Lecturer at the Institute of Gender and Development Studies, UWI (St. Augustine) voiced this opinion.

“Woman is boss” has taken on a whole, new meaning now, with PM Persad-Bissessar in charge. Indeed, more young girls will feel empowered to reach for higher positions, as Persad-Bissessar has proven that a woman can indeed ‘run tings’ in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr Gabrielle HoseinHowever, we wanted to go beyond the superficial, and look at the issues underpinning this historic move.

Since we’re no experts on gender, we decided to have a chat with Dr. Hosein, who has been researching Caribbean gender identities since beginning fieldwork on Indo-Trinidadian young women in 1998 and researching Trinidadian politics and culture.

Outlish finally caught up with her in between her travels, and had an enlightened discussion on the issue.


O: So history has been made. T&T has its first female Prime Minister. How do you feel about that?

Dr H: I feel really positive. The women’s movement really supported Kamla and other female candidates in this election. We have been campaigning for cleaner political campaigns for a long time – campaigns that don’t follow a patriarchal approach to politics as a ‘war’ between ‘enemies’ because they were so divisive and potentially violent for the society. The Partnership’s campaign was quite clean, generally stayed with key issues, and brought in Kamla’s multiple roles as politician, wife, mother, sister and grandmother, which reflect the multiple roles that women play in public and private spheres and their overlaps. So, I think that, having fought a clean campaign, Kamla was able to win the internal election with massive popular vote from both men and women, which showed that we have come far as a society in accepting gender equality.

She was able to pull together a Partnership that challenged the authoritarian mode of political leadership, which we are so used to, and she was able to win at a national level under very historical circumstances, leading a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, cross-ideological, cross-class Partnership, leading as a woman and promising more participatory politics than we have been witnessing of late. I am positive not only about her win as a woman, which is only one step in a long struggle, but also about what she was able to bring with her as small, and yet very significant, achievements.


O: From a basic level, what are the implications of having a female PM?

Dr H: Having a female PM is highly inspiring for a younger generation of women and socialises younger men to grow up in a world where women’s leadership is more accepted. Having a female PM means that we may get policies that are more gender sensitive, but this is more based on the leader’s politics and ideology rather than her sex or biology.

Having a female PM also means recognising that women always have it harder in politics, as they do in any male-dominated sphere of the labour force, and it helps us understand the challenges women face in the spaces they reach when they are able to crack the glass ceiling. Having a female PM also reminds us that politics is not about individuals alone, but about structures, institutional logics, bureaucracies and other limitations on what we can expect from charismatic leadership. Finally, it enables us to hope that she can bring a different style of leadership than that of men, although we also have to see this expectation as possibly unrealistic. Still, having a female PM for the first time in our history is absolutely path-breaking, and this alone makes us re-write our understanding of gender in political life.


“Having a female PM also means recognising that women always have it harder in politics”


O: How will it affect how women and young girls in Trinidad and Tobago view themselves?

Dr H: Without a doubt it is incredibly inspiring for them, girls and women of all classes, ages, ethnicities, sexualities, abilities and generations. It says to us that it can be done and can be done again, and under very trying circumstances. It also highlights, and I am absolutely not being ‘racial’ in saying this – I am speaking to a historical experience and legacy – that it was especially significant for Indian girls and women, who perhaps never ever expected that this could happen and happen so soon. Let us not deny the different ways her victory is viewed because of different historical legacies even while, of course, we share a common history and therefore identify commonly with her victory.


“She is also a symbol of how far Indian women have come in our society”


O: Do you think that gender had anything to do with her being voted in? Or the sentiments about former PM Manning overshadowed the issue of gender, so that it was more about changing the administration than the idea of voting in a female PM or an Indian PM?

Dr H:  I think it was about all. Gender definitely affected her being voted in. Not only the sense that women can be less corrupt, more caring and more responsive, participatory leaders (this is not necessarily true of course, as women’s and men’s leadership style is often far more dictated by the system than by their gender). Nonetheless, this kind of sentiment is powerful and Kamla’s campaign maximized on it by playing up her role as mother, offering her hand and other such gestures. I think also the campaign that she fought was gendered in the sense of highlighting these roles.

The campaign fought against her was also gendered, with typically sexist perspectives on women as less capable of making decisions, less capable of being leaders and as being more ‘weak’ being levelled against her. All the irrelevant talk about her hair, dress etc was also gendered in the sense. Men’s hair, dress, bodies, sexuality and appearance is almost never a platform issue, but women’s bodies are still brought into public understanding of their capacity to do work? Sentiments about PM Manning and the need to change the administration were also an issue.

KamlaI don’t think the idea that she was Indian was as major an issue as it was with Basdeo Panday. In fact, as an Indian, Kamla was much more palatable to non-Indians because she is a woman and because of their personality differences. Of course, non-Indians have significant trepidation about Indians in positions of power, and continue to wield stereotypes of Indians as ‘racial’ if they wish to both be Indian and Trinidadian, which of course they are.

I think Kamla definitely represents an achievement not only for men who believe in gender equality, but for all women who have historically been denied access to the higher levels of leadership. However, it is also worth saying, though people think it ought not to be said, that she is also a symbol of how far Indian women have come in our society. I’ve been really disturbed by people’s view that this should not be said as if it’s not a historical reality. Nonetheless, I don’t think that the question of her ethnicity was more important than her gender, her campaign, her partnership and the credible alternative she was able to provide to PM Manning to the whole population.


“Women’s bodies are still brought into public understanding of their capacity to do work”


O: Some people are afraid of change. Is there still a mentality that women should not hold high office? Is this also a cultural bias?

Dr H: I think there is actually far more acceptance of the idea that women can hold high office than we thought before Kamla’s internal and general election wins. I think in fact that the UNC membership visibly led the way on this as Indian men and women (primarily) of all generations came out to support her. This was quite revolutionary and showed just how much impact Caribbean feminist advocacy has had. Of course, as we continue to live in a patriarchal society, we continue to live with beliefs that men are the natural heads of the home, heads of community organisations, heads of corporations and even heads of state, but women have always challenged this, with the support of progressive men. I think that we need to still understand that we are in a moment where old notions of gender are rapidly shifting, not all people will believe the same things all at once, but I think that the idea that women should not hold high office has totally shifted and the electoral results tell us that.


O: What sort of leadership style are you hoping PM Persad-Bissessar will bring?

Dr H:  I am hoping she will not follow the authoritarian style leadership of former PM Manning. I am hoping that her approach to policy making will be based on rationality, empirical data, wide participation, protection of minorities’ citizen rights and full accountability and transparency. Most of all, I am hoping that she manages to be a leader who citizens feel is accessible, open and committed to equity and equality. It’s extremely difficult as one woman in a patriarchal, political system (which both women and men are schooled in) to make significant change. Most of the time, women are just trying to survive and to control competing interests, as well as challenges to their power. I have great hopes, but limited expectations because history shows us that few individuals, especially women, can achieve great change on their own. Challenging the status quo can make one’s position very vulnerable, and women are more prone to harsh criticism than men in male-dominated spheres of the labour market, politics being one.

I think she has achieved a great deal already, more women who understand the dynamics of ethnicity, class, gender and capitalism, will have to be in there for real policy change to be achieved. I think if she can survive, be a leader that we continue to respect and trust, and make some important but minimal changes, she will have achieved a great deal. True change is always partial and incremental, and the best we can do is continue to organise as social movements so that there is strong pressure and support from the ground for the policies and programmes we want Kamla to put in. She can’t invent that kind of power from simply her own person. The stronger citizen advocacy is, the more we can expect because it then makes it easier for the politicians to think that decisions they make will be popular and accepted.

Click next to read the rest of this interview.


Kamla2O: We’ve had female members of Parliament for years now. Now we see this progression to a female PM. What are the implications of this for women’s movements and gender development?

Dr H: The women’s movement has learned that women parliamentarians cannot always make the changes that we want and that, particularly, we need strong women’s movements on the ground to be able to do so.

Traditionally, female members of Parliament have been there at the patronage of the political leader and have not had the authority or backing to challenge the leader or status quo in the party or society. Kamla is really the first female politician in Trinidad and Tobago to really be able to stand on her own feet and command her own autonomous power. This may enable her to make changes that others could not; she could also be in a very vulnerable position because of her singularity.

For women’s movements overall, the political climate is more open to some of the things we have been struggling for, such as a National Gender Policy that recognises the citizen rights of sexual minorities and the right to freedom from discrimination. I think the onus is on the women’s movement to push Kamla to see women as a constituency that must be considered. One excellent step so far is the combining of the Ministry of Planning with the Ministry of Gender. This is key because all planning and budgeting should be gendered and take into account the different experiences and needs of women and men.

One woman cannot change the situation of women nor push gender conscious development far beyond where it is, as we always have to keep in mind that politics is also structural, meaning shaped by social values, norms, bureaucracies, institutional practices, the political economy, lobbyists etc, and that we have to accept that both women in power and those struggling in NGOs and grassroots movements have to work within these constraints. However, overall, I see a more open climate for gendered power relations to be considered and challenged.


“One woman cannot change the situation of women”


O: Is it fair to have an expectation of her that because she’s a woman, she should make it a priority to address women’s and gender issues?

Dr H: Yes and No. As a woman, she is expected to recognise, even from her own experience, that women experience the world differently from men – and so you expect women in power to take into account women’s differential access to resources, status and power in the economy, household, religious groups, politics etc. Women are more greatly affected by poverty and structural changes to the economy than men are – think even of the numbers of single headed households led by women. So yes, definitely I think that she should be expected to take women’s and gender issues into account, but we expect this of male leaders too. We expect all male and female leaders to recognise women and men’s different realities. However, men have traditionally ruled in an andocentric way, largely ignoring these differential realities. This is why the expectations are greater for women.

However, again, we have to be careful of having greater expectations of women when the political context may not have changed, and when they may not be able to wield the kind of power than men do. Women like Margaret Thatcher, for example, enacted many anti-woman policies in the sense that they were anti-poor, anti-labour, anti-immigrant and in some ways anti-family. These policies all make a greater impact on women, even in terms of increasing their vulnerability to violence. Frankly, I again come back to the need for a strong women’s movement to demand that women in power be able to defend their interests in the relatively masculine space that is parliament. It is fair to expect to more greatly respond as a woman leader, but its not realistic to be disappointed if she cannot make sweeping changes and, in fact, can’t negotiate the system better than men could.


O: Some say that women make better leaders than men. What is it about the female personality that makes women suited for leadership?

Dr H: It’s a myth that women biologically make better leaders than men, and it’s misleading because it hides the structural factors that really limit what individuals can do. However, women can exercise different kinds of leadership at different levels and can often bring a kinder, cleaner, gentler, less authoritarian style at local government levels. The higher the level of power, the more patriarchal its rituals, norms and structures. Women can make better leaders than men and in some cases, for example in Northern Europe and even Chile, they have shown an ability to do so, but we shouldn’t base capacity on biology, either for men or women.

Men can also make great leaders and support women’s movements, more than anything else it depends on the leader’s personal politics, ideology and style of leadership as well. While people may stereotypically say that women are not as dominating or authoritarian in their approach, that women bring their skills of managing family and home to their leadership in public life, that women take different experiences and relationships into consideration than men (Do you ever hear male politicians talking about themselves as fathers and this shaping their policies? This was why Obama made such a difference), that women bring women in with them or are more open to women’s participation, that women are more nurturing etc.

People say these things and sometimes they are in fact true, but it would be unfair to expect women to be so different from men when masculine ways of leading have been the basis of how they are trained, get status, keep power, and are able to get respect from other strong personalities in the system.


O: Do you think her performance will impact how people view women in leadership positions in T&T? How?

Dr H: Absolutely. Men in leadership can make mistakes and people don’t think of them as making these mistakes because they are men, and it doesn’t translate into thinking that other men, because they are men, would make the same mistakes. Unfortunately, the case is very different for women who are often judged collectively by stereotypes associated with their sex and a very essentialised view of women. I think her performance will translate into debate about whether or not women can lead, and whether or not this means that other women can lead. In other words, it is very difficult for women in the workplace to not be judged as women, even when their sex has nothing to do with their job.

This never happens to men or else we would have voted men out long ago. It’s unfair, it’s sexist, but it is the reality that not only will she have to do twice as well to be seen as just as good, but also her mistakes will be judged harsher and linked to her sex. Therefore, it will be used as a basis for understanding the actions and abilities of other women.

This is the experience of women in male-dominated professions generally and professions associated with masculine ideals and norms where women are still seen as the interlopers. I think it is up to us to continually remember that how we judge her performance should not be linked to her sex, unless of course we are willing to discuss everything that male leaders do as shaped by their maleness and their masculinity… which of course it is, but which we publicly deny in considering that men act neutrally i.e. unaffected by their gender while insisting that women act in a biased way i.e. determined by their gender. This is a public bias that we need to be aware of.


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Karel Mc Intosh

Karel Mc Intosh is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Outlish Magazine. She's also the Lead Communications Trainer at Livewired Group, where she conducts workshops in business writing, social media, and other communications areas. A real online junkie, when she isn't surfing the Internet, she's thinking about surfing the Internet. Find out more about her here or tweet her @outlishmagazine.

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