Path Towards Change by Camilla Stivers — A Summary

Title: Path Toward Change   
Author: Camilla Stivers
Publication: Camilla Stivers (2002) Gender Images in Public Administration: Legitimacy and the Administrative State

The problems with public administrative theory from a feminist perspective are:
a) the match between widespread ideas about masculinity and the norms of professionalism, leadership and management;
b) the extent to which bureaucratic structures and procedures, administrative career patterns, and the dynamics of public organisational life depend upon women’s disproportionate responsibility for domestic work;
c) the administrative state’s part in sustaining gender roles that limit women’s life choices:
d) the suppressed femininity of important administrative canons alike responsiveness, service, and benevolence.
e) heedless universalisation of male practices and experiences which are made to stand for humanity as a whole; and
f) the reinforcement of material realities — e.g., double burden of housework and paid employment that working women bear — that oppress women.

Toward a Feminist Theory of Public Administration

Feminist theorising doesn’t have language yet and this limitation which makes setting forth full theories difficult. The project is, for now, a matter of “catching glimpses” of what might be, knowing that it is something that “must be” even though it “cannot yet be”. It begins by exploiting the chinks that considerations of gender have made in the armour of existing theory. An example is the paradox of public administration which at once depends on and denies the existence of womanhood.

What is the path toward change? A fresh look at Mary Parker Follett reveals her relational view of reality, her experience bound idea of knowledge and her ethical idea of integration as well as her implicit rejection of organisational hierarchy, all of which can be extremely useful for the feminist agenda.

The reified place of rationality in public administration could be re-examined from a feminist perspective. Instead of expecting women to behave “like men” in line with conventional practice, women should be treated as “persons of self-definition and on their own terms”, or in other words, “as women”. The emphasis on efficiency and means–ends calculations, or instrumental rationality, must be relaxed.

The Man of Reason who, in a state of rational boundedness or submission to the objective reality, juggles science and ethics in order to get nearest to the truth can be either male or female in practice. The idea however is still gendered because of its reliance on boundedness. Women are a classic example of the undefined and unbounded.[1] Importantly, so long as it continues to rely on boundedness, more rationality is not going to help public administration move beyond gender. The need is to build relationships and engage in collaborative work that will transcend the rules for bounding concepts.

There exist less overt feminist interventions too. The recognition of the “situated self” involved in ground level political dialogue as a determinant of what is governmental authority, as opposed to a set of rules imposed from above, is consistent with feminist ideas if not labelled as such. Also, a recognition and adoption of responsiveness as a positive skill, notwithstanding its alleged femininity, that facilitates prudent action in trying times will create a more gender-balanced image of the administrator.

New Images in Public Administration


The bureaucratic obsession with the idea of neutral objectivity and autonomy and the implicit claims of expertise and competence not only separates and depoliticises the citizen clients, it raises the administrator to a rarefied status above the field.

[Consider the agency perspective introduced by the Blacksburg Manifesto.[2]  By talking about agency without taking into account the context of gender, racial, and class diversity, the Manifesto is asserting that the agency perspective takes shape in a cultural vacuum which, from a feminist standpoint, is untenable.   No wonder then that efforts to diversify the workplace has seen considerable opposition from the establishment.]

The requirement is for a form of competence that is non-hierarchical and receptive to the perspectives of all parties at hand. The goal is to attain a midway between scientific objectivity and untrammelled bias through a form of science that is not divorced from or disinterested in but is immersed in life. Experts should not be raised above the people but should work as collaborators and achieve their expertise through lived experiences. The processes of government should be humanised.

The continued insistence on efficiency and science in administrative matters will negatively impact democracy. By insisting on the correct answer or the one best way, the political dimensions are forcibly stifled. Competence is not about the most scientific answers; it is about the collaborative process.

Competence is also not to be defined in terms of the “heroic” male professional who sacrifices his family life for work. This notion relegates the family life and by extension women to a “lesser” form of existence. The proper professional should be a whole person who is understood to have developed in and is an integral member of a family.


For feminists, images of leadership are questionable. The leader objectifies, controls, and leads. Apart from the suggestion that everyone has to be “led”, another pertinent issue is that of the masculinity of leadership whether it is the imagery or even the simple fact that most leaders are indeed men. When women become leaders, they are forced to, unlike men, manage their gender (be ‘inappropriately’ masculine or ‘indecisively’ feminine?).

One solution is to move more women into leadership positions. But that fails to work in conventional organisations structured around masculinity. A more penetrating perspective is to question the “perceived” need of leadership itself.[3] What about leaderless groups or groups that rotate their leadership among members?

Existing norms of efficiency and hierarchy even in the new entrepreneurial organisations will not allow for leaderless groups. But if we cease assuming the needs for leaders even for a little while or in a limited area, fresher perspectives might emerge.


The perspective on virtue is about “resuscitating” the notion of “public virtue” which has been suppressed by masculinity. So long as the realms of domestic virtue (caring, benevolent, submissive) and public virtue (controlling, ambitious, assertive) remain exclusive even as the public sphere depends on the domestic sphere, virtue will remain problematic. Public virtue has to unite femininity with masculinity.

The image of administrator-as-citizen comes closest to this perspective. But going further, this administrator should not only be for the citizens but should also be with the citizens. Administrators in this view are to be respected because they serve and not because they know. They are to facilitate inclusive governance.

Like mothers, they [the administrators] must foster growth under conditions of complexity; like mothers, they must perform both routine and rewarding work in the interest of others who are in a sense their responsibility; like mothers, they must hold close (conserve administrative resources and capacities) and welcome change; just as mothers see their children as agents of their own lives, so must public administrators see citizens in the same light.

The feminist perspective stresses horizontal relations. In this regard, it sees the public and the private spheres as mutually supportive and existing on the same horizontal plane. Awareness about this mutuality would lead to equality.


The tension in public administration between values and techniques is pervaded with gender implications. The field today appears to be sacrificing values in order to gain efficiency bu tweaking its techniques.

Gender, race, and class are and have always been just as fundamental as the economic and political contexts to the understanding of public administration. It is only that they have never been recognised as such. The feminist perspective is thus essential to a full understanding of the field of public administration itself whether in its present form or in its historical development.

Also, integrating gender into thinking about public administration should be geared towards making it useful for administrative interests and not simply towards “including” it. Diversity is a resource that should be tapped.

The Administrative State

The feminist perspective on the administrative state develops from lower administrative positions where the emphasis is on the “material realities” which have historically been neglected. Firstly, it must be recognised that there is more than one sex with different experiences in organisations. Secondly, this diversity must be thought of as a promising new capacity. Thirdly, the endemic racism and sexism in organisations should be acknowledged. Any theorisation on the administrative state should account for these vital issues.

A feminist perspective on the administrative state would question the infatuation, as has been noted before, with the Man of Reason because of his (it’s almost always “his”) “technical, managerial and moral expertise” and instead encourage the acceptance of depersonalised power.

Feminist Practical Wisdom

The idea of discretionary judgment or practical wisdom enables feminist theory to integrate the themes of competence, leadership, and virtue and link them to the exercise of power.

As a start, the Aristotelian idea of phorensis[4]or practical wisdom has to be examined from a feminist perspective. There is on, close examination, considerable tension about the idea and Aristotle’s views on women which has important consequences even today.

Phorensis blends intellectual and moral capacities and brings into action the faculties of experience and emotion. As a public quality, it is practiced by rulers and citizens. The problem is that women were not counted as citizens let alone as rulers in Aristotle’s time and he subscribed to women’s exclusion from public life and their relegation to the private.

To associate this idea with women, then, requires a reconfiguration of what the good polity and the good life means. It will, first of all, entail a demolition of the artificial wall separating the public from the private so as to include the private sphere into the conception of the good life. But it will also require a rejection of the subordination of the private to the public life so that the value of the private sphere — at whose expense is constructed the public sphere of the polity — is recognised.

However, despite many misgivings, many aspects of phorensis are consistent with feminist ideas: the inclusion of emotions, the importance of context in understanding practical knowledge, and the impossibility of relying solely on rules. These aspects would have to be preserved and promoted.

Feminist phorensis in public administration would argue for connection with and acknowledgement of the material conditions of life rather than distance from them. It would undermine claims for universalisation of social relations. It would require the administrator to critically reflect upon the institutional context in which s/he practices. It would seek to give voice to the silences and examine that which is supressed, ignored, or taken for granted. In sum, it envisions a public administration that is “concrete, situational, experience-based, interactive and collaborative and grounded in perception and feeling as well as in rational analysis”.


The ideas suggested are yet to achieve widespread acceptance and they are indeed only piecemeal. In any case, a holistic feminist construction of public administration would be a “contradiction in terms”. But gender questions will have to be constantly asked. The general discomfort that people have with issues of gender seems to vindicate just how fundamental those issues are.

“Transformation will happen not as the result of selecting the future on a grand scale but will evolve out of countless conversations and situations that bring together around particular problems.”


[1] “Woman” stands for what cannot be brought within the boundaries of language… “Woman” stands for what remains outside naming and ideologies.

[2] The depiction of public administration as an agency. The Manifesto attributes to the agency a constitutionally legitimated, subordinate-but-independent status. (Marshall, Gary S. and White, Orion F., “The Blacksburg Manifesto and the Postmodern Debate: Public Administration in a Time Without a Name” (1990). Public Administration Faculty Publications. 67.)

[3] Leadership in the sense of someone who defines the meaning of situations, shows others the right way to approach problems, and makes them want what the leader wants (i.e. motivates them).

[4] The ability to deliberate rightly about what is conducive to the good life generally.


Published by


I am chronic procrastinator.