As more and more organizations implode, we urgently need tools to transform oppressive power dynamics in the workplace. Join Srilatha Batliwala as she shows us how to understand and analyze visible, invisible and hidden patterns of power to create dramatic organizational shifts.

Srilatha’s work has spanned grassroots activism, building movements of marginalized women, policy advocacy, and capacity building of young activists around the world.

She currently serves as Senior Advisor, Knowledge Building with CREA, (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action), a global organization based in New Delhi, India, that works at the intersection of gender, sexuality and human rights.


Achieving Transformative Feminist Leadership Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation Understanding Power for Organizational Change

Full Transcript

Mallika Dutt: Welcome again to this incredible community of leaders from around the world. And today I am so pleased to introduce you to Srilatha Batliwala, who’s going to take us into a deep dive on one of my favorite topics of all time, and that is the question of power. And today we’re going to be talking about the power within our organizations, an issue that has always had great importance and resonance. And right now as the world reels from the pandemic, as well as social movements that are really questioning and challenging deep, deep, deep hierarchical structures, this conversation, in terms of how we really engage with power within our own organizations has never been more relevant and more important.

And Srilatha is somebody who is a master at taking us through this conversation. I’ve known three, four decades, I think almost 35 years now Sri, I’m not sure how long it’s been. And Srilatha has been a grassroots advocate, worked at very local, rural, urban poor community levels in India as well as at the level of global public policy. She has worked in grassroots organizations in India at the Ford Foundation, been at the Harvard Hauser Institute, and is now a part of CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action), a global organization that is based in India, that works at the intersection of sexuality and rights and also affiliated with gender at work.

I’m not going to get into more details describing Srilatha to you because there is just too much to share. But let me get you all ready for this deep dive that we’re going to be doing. Srilatha’s going to present us with slides; an explanation of how she unpacks the question of power, particularly power within organizations, and then she’s going to lead us into small group discussions with questions that we are going to explore within our groups for about twenty, twenty-five minutes. And then we’re going to come back together to share, explore, ask, learn. I’m going to ask you to keep the last five minutes, seven minutes of this call, so that we can, for ourselves as a community so that we can go over some housekeeping issues as well as do a quick survey that we’ll be sharing on the chat screen with you.

So without further ado, I am going to move over to Srilatha and invite her to begin her presentation.

Srilatha Batliwala: Thank you so much Mallika. Greetings and Namaste, and Salaam-Alaikum, and good morning, good afternoon, good evening to all of you.

What I’m going to do today is basically walk us through a very brief sort of recap of how do we understand power itself. The theme of the discussion today is, of course, understanding power in our organizations and how do we change the way power operates in our organizations.

Srilatha Batliwala: So we need to first start with understanding and taking a quick, re-look at power itself. And the specific questions I’m going to run through are: You know what is power? How do you define it? Where is it? What forms does it take, or what does it look like? And finally, how do power structures arrive and how they are sustained? And once we do this recap, then we will look at all of this in the context of organizations.

So in terms of defining power, the definition I like best because it’s simplest and clearest, is that power is the capacity of different individuals or social groups to decide who gets what. So that’s the distribution of resources, access and control over resources. Who does what, so of course the division of labor. Who decides what, so this is the power of decision making and perhaps the most important of all, in today’s context is, who is framing the agenda, who’s deciding and telling us what is important and what is not. There’s a huge amount of power embedded there.

So with this definition. Let’s look at the three key spaces in which power operates: public spaces, of course, visible public institutions like the government or law enforcement, military, courts, etc… But it operates as every feminist has been saying for centuries in private spaces as well, within traditional structures like clans and castes, but also in the household, in the family, in intimate relationships of various kinds. And finally, power operates within ourselves. So power is not just something that comes from outside and acts on us, it is acting within us, it is there within us and that’s what is sometimes called in the sort of mainstream development discourse, self- esteem, or agency, confidence, etc.

Power also has three faces or three manifestations. And this is very important for those of us who are looking at power inside organizations. The first face of power is the visible face. Some people, some theorists call this direct power, okay. And that means of course the power to control other people’s choices and their actions. So think of an example, in other words, this is where you have direct orders. You can’t go there. You can’t wear this or you can’t do that.

Hidden power is another face which is, and some people call this indirect power, it is the power to control or influence other people’s choices and actions, without giving any direct orders. It’s a kind of behind the scenes power.

And third, very potent and very important is invisible power, which is the power to frame the agenda, or shape the way people think or feel, or what they believe, without them even knowing you’re doing it.

So let’s quickly take a look at some examples of each of these faces. obviously one face of visible power: political leaders. Violence is another face or another aspect of visible power.
Hidden power, that is the capacity to influence people’s choices actions behavior without direct orders. The best example is social norms, including norms around the division of labor, around masculinity, around good woman and bad woman, etc.

Social media as we all understand today is a huge source of hidden power because it is shaping the way people think and what they believe, etc. And we all know about the power, for instance of fake news and hate speech on platforms like Facebook.

Srilatha Batliwala: Let’s now come to invisible power. And the first example like you give us this is ideology. Because when you think about invisible power people never think of ideology as a form of invisible power, but it is indeed the most potent form of this. An ideology is not just about a theory or something that’s written in a book, it is the ideas that we have internalized about right, wrong, natural, normal. Usually unconsciously, these ideas have been instilled in us. It is the mechanism, ideology is the mechanism through which we consent to our own oppression or participate in the oppression of others, or justify the oppression of others. That is the power of ideology. It’s operating invisibly. So if you think about it, patriarchy, racism, classism, neoliberal capitalism, heteronormativity, ableism, all of these ideologies. And they are exerting an enormous amount of invisible power because most of the time we’re not even conscious that it is acting on us. And many of these ideologies are not written in any book.

Another form of invisible power is data, because today we live in a world where we have become data. It’s perennially flowing and expanding data. And we are shaped, we are used, we are targeted and exploited as data. And most of the time we are barely aware of how this is happening.

So now let’s look at how power structures arise. Power structures emerge at some point in history because some individuals or groups have gained greater control over certain resources; material resources, land, capital, human resources, our bodies, our labor, our reproductive power, our sexuality, knowledge resources, education, information, ideas. And then the intangible resources, those very hard to pin down resources like our contacts, who we know, our social support systems, where we have influence, where we have voice, etc.

And so a social power structure and a gender power structure gets constructed. But as soon as this power structure gets constructed it has a challenge. Because it’s unequal. A few people have the greatest power and the vast majority have less and less. So how is this power structure going to sustain itself? So it constructs certain pillars to sustain it. And the first pillar is an ideology to justify that power structure, to say this is the way it is because God has made it this way, nature has made it this way, some people are more intelligent, some people are higher caste, some people are white skinned and so they have superior brains, whatever. There’s an ideology that’s constructed to justify the power structure. But that ideology now has to be transmitted and taught and maintained. So a whole set, it has to be translated into everyday practice, the ideology. And that is social norms, and beliefs, and practices that we carry out on a day to day basis where we are practicing the ideology through the norms.

And then we have social institutions whose task is to teach those norms and take forward those ideological beliefs. So the family, education institutions, the market. These are all social institutions that then proceed to reproduce and justify and protect the social power structure.

And finally, if all these pillars are shaken by, for instance, strong mass movements of the disempowered, then there is the use of violence. First, it’s fear and threats. As most women know for instance, when you break certain gender norms, you face threats or you have a fear of violence, and then actual violence is used to push back the challenge.

So now let’s come to the second part, which is why do social justice organizations reproduce negative and oppressive practices of power within their own structures? Especially because they see that their mission is to dismantle these oppressive power structures in the world beyond

their organizational boundaries. So the reason for this is actually quite simple, and it’s based on a very simple but wrong assumption that we make, and that we barely recognize that we make this assumption: That social change organizations or any organization for that matter, should reflect in its functioning, in its internal culture, the values and goals that it was set up to achieve, we make that assumption. The second assumption we make is that organizations are rational entities, but they are not. Because organizations are simply mirrors or microcosms of the social context in which they are created. So organizations tend to reflect the social environment.

Srilatha Batliwala: So patriarchal, unequal, discriminatory societies produce discriminatory organizations. But in the case of social justice organizations, these inequalities, biases, privileges, the reflection of that power structure, cannot obviously be overt, they have to be hidden. And so these power dynamics inside the organization are often submerged or hidden inside what is called the “deep structure” of the organization.

Now let’s have a look at what are organizational “deep structures”. So basically these are a set of dynamics. They are the hidden, often very subtle ways in which people, often unconsciously, reproduce the power relations they are trying to change. So a classic example would be the founder of a social justice organization, a man, or the leader of a social justice organization, who says he is deeply committed to gender equality, but has never ever promoted a woman in the organization to a really senior position. Or feels deeply threatened by having powerful women in the organization. So basically what you see in… The way to look at deep structure is that on the surface, the organization looks like this: It looks like the Buddha. It’s perfect. You can read their vision, their mission statement. They’ll have excellent policies on paper; equal opportunity employer, we stand against racism, gender discrimination, homophobia, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s the Buddha. That’s the surface of the organization. And here is the ‘deep structure”: The bed of snakes, where all these subtle power dynamics are getting reproduced in these, very kind of, insidious and informal ways.

So here are some examples, because this is what we want you to discuss in your group discussions. Here are some examples of “deep structure” dynamics in organizations: Informal norms that are very different from the formula rules. So for example, the formal rules may say that you are entitled to these types of time off, or compensatory time off when you have done a lot of extra work, or put in a lot of extra hours. But in fact, people who then use those policies are considered less committed, less devoted to the mission of the organization, less dependable to deliver the goods. So there’s a very subtle norm that’s operating that’s very different from the formal policy. There are informal groups who have a lot of voice, and a lot of power and influence but they don’t have any formal designation. It’s not like you know, they are the senior management team or the official advisory committee of the board of the organization. No, these are informal groups which are often based on how long they’ve been in the organization, who they have access to inside the organization, who is closest to the people in top leadership positions, who’s been around the longest, who is the, let’s say nephew or niece of some very influential political person in the country, or in the state, or in the city. These kinds of hidden powers.

And then you have a whole set of dynamics around all kinds of informal and invisible processes that are influencing formal decision making. I leave you to think of examples of some of these because we don’t have time for all.

Srilatha Batliwala: You have a dynamic, which is about how certain kinds of behavior is valued and certain kinds are punished. So a typical manager or organizational head, who says, we encourage our team to question, to challenge, we are very open here. But everyone who has questioned and challenge has had to face some negative consequences in some other space or in some other process, such as rarely getting promotions. A lot of personal biases or social privileges are reproduced in the organization. Some of these can relate to gender biases, they can relate to biases around people’s sexual expression, their gender identity, their caste, their race. We’ve seen a whole lot of examples recently of that.

And finally, a very important “deep structure” dynamic is “power under” practices. Now this is a fascinating concept. Very few people have been exposed to this idea, but it’s a really, really important idea. “Power under” is the reason why people who have suffered oppression, for example, a lot of people who create social justice organizations, who have been through experiences of discrimination themselves, become oppressive to others when they gain power. It’s a kind of victim power. And I like to use the image of Darth Vader to represent power under because I think he’s a very good symbol of this concept. So what is power under? It’s a concept developed by a psychoanalyst called Stephen Wineman, who worked with survivors of severe trauma or persistent oppression. Battered women, survivors of genocide, the Rwandan genocide, Jewish genocide in Europe, survivors of long-term abuse, survivors of kidnapping, of child abuse, etc. And he found that these experiences generated in their survivors what he called “powerless rage”. Because no human being is meant to be in a situation where they are rendered so completely powerless and under someone else’s control, to that extent. It creates a huge rage, anger within us. And this rage, he found when it isn’t healed, when it isn’t recognized, leads to the use of power under by people who have survived this. And that is the belief that there are only two roles in the world; victim or oppressor. And so if I don’t behave as the oppressor I will automatically become the victim or the oppressed.

Okay, so basically I’ve taken Wineman’s concept, studied it deeply in my own context, and especially in the context of feminist organizations and feminist movements, where I saw huge amount of this oppressive use of power by women leaders who nevertheless, who were, you know, working for women’s rights and empowerment, and all the rest of it, and reproducing enormously oppressive environments within their own organizations. And I realized that it is not only severe trauma and abuse that produces powerless rage, but any kind of long-term systemic discrimination that you experience, which is what it is to be a woman in many societies. There is this internalized sense of powerless rage, and so there is a tendency to practice “power under” quite unconsciously when you gain access to power. And what I saw was that in organizations “power under” can manifest in several forms: gossip, character assassination, sycophancy, flattery, doing personal favors for the boss. Because remember “power under” is being practiced, not only by those in leadership, but those at various levels of the organization, trying to ensure that they are not in the location of being oppressed. Okay, so they are leveraging from their location, this powerless rage in these forms. Overt obedience, “Yes, sir. Excellent idea. Yes, we’ll definitely take forward this new strategic plan.” Sabotage from the back. Very, very common occurrence in our sector.

And finally, for people in leadership who have this internalized victim syndrome, when they gain leadership roles and they become very oppressive in the way they practice leadership, because internally they are afraid they will be seen as too small for that role. Internally, they feel victims.

Srilatha Batliwala: So the reality is that organizations are also sites of these three faces of power, these three forms of power. So you have the visible power, which is the formal leadership and formal decision making systems, structures, policies, and rules. Then you have this whole site of hidden power, the “deep structure” dynamics that are going on. And finally, you have this invisible power, which is the “power under” practices, which are used to sabotage, or control, or leverage, or influence, etc.

So if we tie this all together using our previous power diagram and look at how do power structures arise and operate in organizations. This is what it sort of looks like. So you have the resources, financial resources, human resources, information resources, intangible resources (like what kind of connection and influence you have with donors, for example). And that creates a kind of formal organizational power structure. So, this is the formal power structure. Now I’ve used here a classic triangle, maybe it’s more square, or a hexagon, or I don’t know what. But there is a formal power structure in the organization. And then you have that structure supported by the pillars of, you know, “this is our stated mission. This is our vision. Here are our formal rules and policies, and here’s our formal decision making.” But behind all of this, and surrounding all this, and mediating all this, is the “deep structure” and the “power under” practices that are going on, and that are often, in fact vitiating the formal mission and even the formal rules and policies.

So to transform organizational cultures, to dismantle these kind of hidden power structures in our organizations, and the oppressive leadership practices, it requires recognizing and addressing all the forms of power that are operating within our organizations, not just the ones on the surface. And it involves recognizing and addressing the forms of power that are operating within us, including internalized privilege of whatever race, class, caste, gender, etc. And also internalized “power under” practices and beliefs. And we can’t do this once and say, “Okay we fixed that.” We have to do it as an ongoing internal process. It’s kind of like a detoxing or a cleansing that you have to do on an ongoing basis.

So there are five essential strategies, I would suggest, and then I’ll stop. That is to analyze and revise when necessary, the policy and decision-making framework, and organizational hierarchy. So this is the formal stuff that you have to do. And interestingly, even here there is tremendous scope for change, because most of our organizations haven’t even developed solid, visible, strong mechanisms for including our constituencies in our decision making and our strategic priorities. And I’ve seen a few examples recently of organizations trying to do that, such as the Global Fund for Women has set up what they call their Adolescent Girls Advisory Committee. So they’re actually inviting adolescent girls from around the world to help shape their programming and their priorities on supporting adolescent girls.

You need to map and analyze the deep structure dynamics in your organization and do it periodically. You have to encourage, and support, and recognize the need to work on the self, and actually stop and call out “power under” practices and behavior. You have to create very clear, very transparent, open mechanisms, and accountability for addressing deep structure dynamics. You have to make it a formal responsibility of leadership, for instance, and people have to be held to account for the quality of the internal environment. So you can’t just do performance assessment on the basis of how many targets were met, or how good was the program out there in the field when everybody inside that team perhaps feels miserable and oppressed. So let me stop there.

Mallika Dutt: Thank you for that incredibly in-depth overview and for reminding us all about the work that we have to do internally to move our societies and cultures along.

We also often move immediately to the organizational and the structural pieces. And what I’ve come to understand over the years is that the self-work that’s required, the actual inner work that we need to do, is often the most challenging part of this journey. And the inner work isn’t just about recognizing our power, it’s also acknowledging the pain, the trauma, and all of the ways in which we’ve been hurt, and our communities have been hurt. You know there’s familial dynamics, there’s so many things that are a part of understanding these deep structures and especially kind of our own location. And as leaders without that inner work as Srilatha pointed out, where so often perpetuating dynamics without even understanding how we ourselves are reproducing those systems of oppression.

Srilatha Batliwala: Thanks very much Mallika, and thanks to all of you. I’m glad the presentation was useful and provocative. Let me just start by saying that I think Mallika will be sharing with you a couple of resources that delve much deeper into these concepts, and also into strategies. The concept paper on premise leadership and toolkit on, you know, how to achieve transformative feminists leadership, both of which were brought out by CREA several years ago, but I think are still quite relevant.

I just had three thoughts to share provoked largely by some of what you have shared in terms of insights from your own discussions. The first is that I think a long standing experience in feminist organizations has been to try and share power or to flatten our structures formally, but not quite recognizing or learning in a hard, painful way, that even if you flatten structures, if you don’t address the sort of historic ways in which lack of access to power inhibits or mediates people’s capacity to take it and use it, even when it’s formally, sort of, made available is actually a huge problem. So if you suddenly, you know, open up decision making power to people who have not historically had access to that kind of thing, sometimes it takes some work to overcome the inhibitions, the fear of consequences, in order to actually be able to take it and use it effectively. So we have to really look beyond the formal sharing of power and the, you know, formal reshaping of our structures. That’s just the first step, but there’s so much more that has to be done.

The second thing I’d say is that it’s really not about getting it right, it’s about constantly experimenting and evaluating the experiments. A lot of the times, you’re not going to get it right and it doesn’t matter because I think it’s the intentionality, it’s the honesty and the transparency with which we demonstrate a willingness to recognize and deal with these hidden power dynamics, even if those mechanisms are imperfect. That itself I think transforms the organizational culture in a very deep and radical way, just the intentionality and the willingness to experiment.

And my final point was actually to echo what was last shared by our friends from FRIDA, whom I greatly admire for their enormously, I think, creative experimentation, which is how do we deal with the external pressures to deliver, often coming, of course, from donors that often drive the really important things like examining our deep structure dynamics and dealing with them. So they drive the important things like that to the back burner, they push it to the back because we are kind of being driven to respond to the urgent, to make sure that we are, you know, delivering on whatever the project proposal said we were going to do.

Srilatha Batliwala: So I think this also calls for a much stronger advocacy and alliance building with the donor community, and I don’t know, I hate to use that word, but sensitization that these internal dynamics are really important and we have to be able to prioritize them with their support. And maybe this is a historic moment because of all these issues that have exploded around sexual harassment, racism inside our organizations, etc. Maybe it is the right moment to begin to get the donors on board. So let me stop there. And thank you all very, very much for your participation today and for giving me an opportunity to be part of this process.

Mallika Dutt: Thank you so much Srilatha, a really rich and deep conversation. And a huge thank you to each and every one of you. What an incredibly tumultuous and exciting time for all of us to be in leadership, for all of you to be on the front lines of change, wherever you are around the world. What courage it takes for us to be in these places right now and to be having these conversations with integrity, honesty, vulnerability as the winds of change rage in so many different ways. So a huge thank you to all of you. I hope you can feel the siblinghood, the connections amongst all of us as we learn and share and grow together.

So one more last huge thank you to Srilatha. I think that is one of the calmest, most detailed, most easy to follow unpacking of power. I myself have used your materials, Srilatha, for years in the leadership sessions that I have been teaching at Omega and other places, and the work that I do around power, privilege, and intersectionality. And I am so grateful for your brilliant mind and your enormous heart and your deep, deep sisterhood for all of these decades.

This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.

Theme music from Mann ke Manjeeré: an album of women’s dreams,  (c) Breakthrough 2000. Used with permission.

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.