Reinventing Government from a Feminist Perspective: Feminist Theory and Administrative Reality by DeLysa Burnier — A Summary

Title: Reinventing Government from a Feminist Perspective: Feminist Theory and Administrative Reality
Author: DeLysa Burnier
Publication: The Forum Magazine (Fall, 1995)


The idea of ‘reinventing’ government has gripped the imagination of practitioners in administration and within academia. The reinvention project is “multi-faceted and open-ended” but takes the market as its ideal. The idea is to transform the traditional government marked by its regulation and inertia into an entrepreneurial one with an emphasis on performance and flexibility.

This is a very powerful idea. Not only did David Osborne and Ted Gaebler’s Reinventing Government become a national best-seller in 1992, President Bill Clinton appointed the National Performance Review (NPR) headed by Vice-President Al Gore with Osborne as adviser. NPR’s 1993 report recommended entrepreneurial principles and practices.

The concept of reinvention questions the fixity of the old bureaucratic model arguing that it is not unalterable and that it remains “open to redefinition and reconstruction”. In the light of this argument, the entrepreneurial government is a compelling alternative.

Women’s scholarship and experiences have traditionally remained at the periphery of the discipline of public administration with discussions narrowly limited to “equal opportunity, affirmative action, comparable worth and numerical representation”.

Even in this new debate, feminist perspectives are conspicuously absent. It is the article’s argument that feminist knowledge and women’s experiences can and should be incorporated in any project to reinvent government. The reinvention project has to be gender-inclusive.

Feminist Theory

Feminism is the political movement that believes in the equality of women and men, and is committed towards the elimination of gender-based injustice. Barring this basic commitment, feminism incorporates a diversity of often contradictory theoretical perspectives. Many embrace plural theories and champion situated analysis, expressing disdain for essentialist and universal theory.

Feminist Approaches to the Problem of Equality

The first approach, associated with liberal feminists, denies or dismisses the importance of sex-based differences. There, then, remains no ground upon which to discriminate between men and women.

The second approach recognises the importance of equality while embracing the differences between men and women. The problem is only that women’s experiences and ‘ways of knowing’ have been devalued by society.

Th third approach, associated with postmodernists, attempts to alter the terms based on which gender issues have been conceptualised. The push is towards understanding the diversity of contexts in which women live their multiple lives and not to confine gender-related discussions to differences between men and women.

Developing a Feminist Perspective in Public Administration

The Interpretive Turn

Interpretive inquiry assumes individuals as acting subjects performing meaningful (for them) actions and also assumes that explanations of meanings must be based on the “concepts of action, intention and convention”.

The interpretative turn enables scholars to examine the actions of administrators. It enables analysis of concrete experiences without recourse to abstract categories. This perspective easily accommodates the diverse aims of feminist theory by enabling the accounting of everyday practices of public administration whether it’s daily instances of discrimination (of interest to the first feminist approach), investigating how ways of knowing figure in administrative settings (the second approach) or even generating grounded and contextual knowledge of women (the third approach).

The Critical Turn

The critical turn “shifts” the study of gender from the level of the individual to that of the collective arguing that the problem is not merely of individual roles but of institutionalised practices enjoying social sanction. This helps examine the extent to which public organisations are gendered hierarchies.

The scant research in this perspective has revealed the institutional denial of positions of power to women which simultaneously “reflect and perpetuate” the traditional understanding of the male and the female.

Leadership Styles

Women have pioneered an alternative to the traditional command-and-control leadership in the form of interactive leadership. This collaborative and consensual form of leadership encourages participation and sharing. Such a style need not supplant but should definitely complement traditional leadership forms.

Research strongly suggests that women are less likely to “compete and control” while seeking efficacy; they are more likely to be “unique practical, and descriptive” in management roles; they adopt interactive and indirect leadership styles; and they display more interest in people and create more open work settings.

Despite success, women continue to be side-lined even when in high administrative posts, underscoring the need for emphasising gender as an analytic category in leadership studies. Future research should not turn differences into reified categories, should pay attention to the structural limits and opportunities provided by organisations, should emphasis actual experiences of women in senior positions and should keep in mind that women’s experiences will me more suited in non-traditional organisations.

Organisation Theory

Feminist research raises questions pertinent to organisation theory. Interactive style of leadership has resulted in practical changes including a flattening of hierarchy and the development of circular, as opposed to pyramidal, organisation. How effective these innovations are when applied to public organisations remains to be seen.

There has been an emphasis on the organisational values of the women’s movement. The rational–legal outlook that undermines other values and concerns has been attacked and dissatisfaction with the gendered nature of organisations has been expressed.


Feminist ethics centres on an ethic of care based on their historical experiences as child-bearers and -rearers. While men are more likely to rely on abstract principles of justice, women are more likely to be influenced by immediate concerns about harm. This ethic of care (or concern about harm) should be recognised as a legitimate moral orientation.

This insight is important for public administrators because of the dual ethical contexts in which they work. The value conflicts between professional rules and personal discretion could benefit from feminist ethics analysis.

Organisational Behaviour

Women and their bodies continue to be problematic for men who actively resist the principles of equality forcing women to act like men if they are to expect workplace equality. But all the while, women are subjected to harassment. Also, women are compelled to negotiate what it means to me a female in top positions.

Women experience the workplace differently from men. This anomaly should be addressed if reinvention is to succeed.


Women are left to the margins both in the practice and discipline of public administration. The traditional notions about bureaucracy and its emphasis on gender-neutrality (indeed, value-neutrality) are, given the scholarship available, “no longer acceptable or realistic”. If government is to be truly reinvented, it cannot proceed without considering the role of gender.


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