We interviewed sixteen women aged 40 to around 80 years of age (see Table 1), whose area of work spread across 8 out of 14 districts of the state. Out of a total of sixteen participants, eight occupied senior administrative roles at state and district levels. We interviewed five health care providers including senior medical officers, nurses who had been recognized for their nursing sector, and a senior traditional healer. The remaining three participants worked closely with communities in the role of an academic at a teaching hospital, an activist in a prominent health-related Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), and a Local Self Government (LSG) leader (i.e. Panchayat President).
Demographic characteristics of the participants
Age of participants
Above 60 years
Years of exp
Participants’ employment cadre
State and district level administration
Healthcare Practitioners (MOs, Nurses, ANMs, Practitioners)
Other Leaders (LSG members, NGO representatives, Academics)
All the participants we interviewed described challenges through their life course -while seeking education, in professional services, as well as in positions of leadership. Quite often, these involved a trade-off between their professional (meaning their own goals and aspirations) and patriarchal norms (related to familial or gender obligations and expectations to which they were held). We detail this in the following sections.
While acquiring education/early career experiences
Most of the women we interviewed had received professional qualifications in medical and social sciences, except for two, who had received basic school level education. They described challenges they faced while acquiring education at different points of time in their lives. To begin with, patriarchal gender norms impacted early school education. One of our participants recalled,
“…my mother made me do everything, and I felt it was like me being punished when I was going to school. Early morning, I had to wake up and I had to prepare food for me by myself…wash all my clothes by myself and for my younger siblings also. So I had to do everything at home and have to do it all fast. … They didn’t allow me to study after evening 8pm. So all that time I got to study was during the day time by adjusting other things.” (P-08)
Three of our women leaders pointed out the challenge in furthering their education post marriage, as child rearing was a priority for them at that time. In contrast, childrearing responsibilities did not prevent their partners from pursuing higher education.
“I tried Post graduation during the early phase of my career, that is in 87. I passed out from (anonymized) Medical College and I got married in the same year. And I had my first child in 88, so there was no time for me to go for post graduation that time. Because my husband is also a Doctor and he was doing his post graduation that time when we were married. So that time, naturally what happened was my time went in babysitting and all.” (P-01)
“So in 2006 January the course started. By that time it was around 5 years after my course... Then role from one place to another like that… I opted for the PhD program in < name of institution>. But because my son was small I couldn't join…(as it) was in Delhi.” (P-12)
A participant who was teaching at a medical college observed that her female students were more inclined to take up non-clinical subjects. She attributed this to their needing (time) to handle child-care duties, in contrast to their husbands (who more often chose clinical subjects, in part because they were not burdened with childcare).
“…I am teaching student(s) here, especially post-graduate students. They will be coming after MBBS, they will be 22–23 years, that is the time for them to get married and having children... They cannot attend the class regularly, they may have to take long leaves and mainly we have girl students… (for) Community Medicine rarely 1 or 2 boys come. If they compare their professional career and their husbands, I ask them. They are also doctors, they won't take any leave, If the child is sick? These girls have to sit back. They also may be doing PG course. They can also dedicate. What happens is that in the profession, we will be losing.” (P-10)
In professional service
Participants reported that executing their professional duties had an impact upon family life, especially when on night duty:
“In 2007 I requested again for a transfer. Because I had some issues at home in terms of health. Mother in law had a bypass surgery, I had small children. Because of all these issues, I had problem in doing night duty” (P-02)
“So they [my family] suffered a lot because I used to go to hospital in between, from 12 midnight to morning 8 o'clock several times. So every alternative day he [husband] would ask 'Oh! Today you are having an emergency call?’” (P-03)
Participants who worked in government departments noted the common challenge of travelling with difficult transportation options. One participant recounted being full term pregnant and having to take a bus, two jeeps and then another bus to get to work. Two of our participants noted travelling for work came with challenges of security, requiring their partners’ support.
“Even if you are out and travel back very late, then I, from the railway station even, now when there is prepaid and all. In the 'olden times,’ my husband used to come to pick me up in the railway station. People used to make fun. You are such a feminist, and you cannot go home alone at 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock. I said No, I have to take my safety into (my own) hands” (P-06)
The very usage of public transportation to workplace also posed risks of being sexually harassed.
“…The one I remember is kind of exhibitionism…in the train. One person sitting opposite to me who was completely exposing the relevant part…Usually going and coming back in the same train…I rang the helpline number. They actually responded and when the train came here, there were police around the compartment. By that time he left.” (P-12)
When asked about experiences of sexual harassment at the workplace, however, our participants noted that they had not experienced this. We did, however, hear of an instance of workplace harassment on account of a worker taking her entitled maternity leave. In this instance, the worker faced a lot of hurdles in getting her leave approved as well as disapprobation of her superior.
There were many instances where participants reflected that their families did not understand or could not relate to the situations they confronted at work. In one case, the participant noted that understanding her working life was not even something she could expect from her family; rather it was her role to satisfy the needs and feelings of family members at home.
“You have to have that sort of professionalism to leave everything there, Come back home and then be a totally different person. I realized it quite late when I would often recount stories, and my daughter one day said, Amma, why do you have to spoil everybody's mood at the dining table… Looking after my husband's feelings and the children's, that was more difficult, because invariably it's a mother who will be blamed…”(P-07)
In leadership roles
Many participants in our study narrated experiences of gender stereotyping while performing duties as supervisors or managers. There were expectations of women’s behaviour as being malleable and being fit for particular kind of portfolios:
“Because being a woman, some public, some administrators or some politicians think that we can be influenced by them easily. I have felt it. But that had not been hindrance for my performance. Yet there were incidents where they have thought in that way and behaved to us like that. But we have never surrendered to that” (P-04)
“Although there are educated, talented women, there is a glass ceiling always. It’s very difficult for women to break that to a leadership position. And even when women come to leadership positions in a political party or something like that, soft things are given. Like health, social security, all that…So women [are] just doing women's (things).” (P-06)
A senior traditional healer working in a remote community in the state commented that gender-based discrimination happens in the informal health sector too. She described instances where, even though both spouses were practicing healers, only the men were represented in meetings and professional events.
“…When men go for a meeting, they never take their wives along. Men come without taking their wife who is involved in it…While I go for the meeting, I don't talk on the stage. Yet they make me sit there. I don't like to talk there. They will talk (on) behalf of me.” (P-14)
In a similar vein, another participant was offered a transfer on grounds that it would benefit her partner:
“They came to me with the carrot, if you will take a (district health administration) post and take charge of District health administrator, we will try and bring your husband here.”(P-07)
Another woman leader said that she felt forced to get a transfer to be in the same location of her husband, who got a position.
There were situations pointed out by study participants where they were discriminated on the grounds of religion and caste. One of the participants while replying to our enquiry about caste-based discrimination in their workplace, reported that
“I have heard from others that some of them talk like that behind me, but I have never bothered about it…Some of them have told me that I have never deserved to be [in the current position as she is from a reservation category] and this I heard through others. That is their problem.” (P-16)
“…Since I do not have Nair (Hindu- Upper caste surname) at the end of my name, It will be problematic for me, so many of them told me not to go there (State level post)… But I said, that can't be done, I will come and see…Later on, I realized such discrimination [exists] there…It is very silent, not visible though. We can understand that… Then I thought, how we can think like that being this much educated… how ever high the position you are in… the identity of female gender and caste are really existing. Every time that difference is reiterated.” (P- 08)
Women leaders were often the first to break gender barriers and taboos in their families and had to exercise additional efforts - literally go the extra mile - to attain education and their position:
“The reason for not going (to school) was, school was far away. Those days’ girls going to schools far away by walking were not safe because there were not many classmates with me… There was not anyone to go along with to the school. I had to walk a lot to reach school, need to cross river and all (forest)…I had enthusiasm to study.” (P-09)
This participant had to discontinue her studies shortly after. Those who were able to progress with their education unequivocally reported the importance of support from their family members. While mentioning about the support from the partner, many of them felt that both the partners being in the same profession is a positive catalyst for maintaining work-life balance.
“I married a person who is also an activist. And we met at the organizations I worked at previously. So, he perfectly understands what I am doing. And we did not want the children to suffer, so when they were young, we would take turns. When he had to travel, I would stay at home and vice versa. Very few times, when both of us were away, our friends pitched in.” (P-06)
“Support from husband also. I used to reach home at night 8 o clock. My husband also used to come for < type of > work (along with me).” (P-15)
In other instances, participants noted active help given by their partners:
“…he(husband) is always supportive. Most of the time when I couldn’t find an answer for something, he would help me. ..…He says if you have done something wrong you have to bend down your neck, otherwise walk with your head held high. My daughter has said your profession is your passion. So don't cry….” (P-11)
“My husband brought my child to my workplace directly, for me to breastfeed the child. I am so fortunate for that. I had so much support at my house also. My husband and family have never asked me to stay out of a job because I am a woman.” (P-05)
One participants recounted the lack of mentorship, indicating how she now had stepped in to fill that gap for other members of her family:
“I had struggled a lot to study; there was no role model or no one to tell me what to study. But it was easy for my sister and my cousins because I could guide them. One is a gynaecologist (now), one is [in] Forensic[s].” (P-16)
It was also noted that the support these women received from their co-workers was essential, enabling them to function, and motivating them as leaders.
“We were able to work only with their (colleagues’) help and support. If we think to do something by ourselves, it may not happen. Help from people and colleagues (is important)…The support they gave us while working with them and thereby the experience was a motivation for the times ahead.” (P-15)
Over their decades of experience, women leaders had designed their own strategies and mechanisms to overcome challenges, be it in their professional or in social or family life. Each women leader reported her own unique way of doing things and overcoming challenges. For example, one participant noted that she took complains as a learning experience: “whatever comes in as a complaint, I never leave it like that. I'll take it and study it properly. That is my thing. Because if somebody is asking, and I always say that they are my best teachers also. If there is no complaint,I will not learn.” (P-03) Another participant said that she ignored the criticism: “Things like anonymous letters would be there. We just have to take it in that spirit-like these kinds of people are there in the society. But I have not internalized that. So it was in its own way, that's all” (P-13)
Leaders and their dynamic leadership styles
Our participants observed that enduring challenges and going through difficult times in work had shaped their leadership style(s). Having said this, these women leaders approached teamwork and adopted variable leadership approaches – taking responsibility for failures but also trying to motivate colleagues along on pathways to growth:
“… I am a combination leader. When it is required to take (an) authoritative role, I take that only. But more or less I am a democratic leader. In any disastrous or difficult situation, I take authoritative role. I take authoritative role if the ship we sail is about to fail, I take ownership for the failure. At the same I time, I allow my fellow members to grow along with me and I make sure they get capacity building trainings.” (P-05)
“What I used to do is, my style is in two types. I identify within our group who works, I delegate them. Then we don’t need to think about them. But there are some people who are not motivated, so I try to motivate them. When I go to training and all, I try to motivate the team, even though I am not a self-motivated person, I try to motivate others...Always we take opinion, when we have (to) take decisions. I call for programme officers meeting and ask their opinion, but beyond that, the final decision will be, the decided thing has to be carried out.” (P-01)
Another style we observed was shared, distributed, or collective leadership: “All the staff in the office are good… If I say something to them, they understand it and do accordingly; they are efficient as they give response quickly. They are not slackers. All of them have to work together to make the system to go forward. Then only I also can move forward.” (P-13)
In spite of the challenges the women leaders face, they were motivated by the recognition they received from community members, political leaders, as well as superiors and colleagues at work.
“I received good support from society… ‘we’ achieved these trophies personally for myself and for the PHC… Otherwise also a lot of people, schools, library, District panchayat member... Really society has recognized me…If I am going in a bus, they would take tickets, enquire whether I need food or not.” (P-11)
““I got 2012 that social welfare department award, in 2013 State award for best nurse. In 2014, National Florence Nightingale award which I received from Delhi. In 2017, Vanitha Ratnam Puraskar given by our Chief Minister …. If we are really determined to do something we can really achieve it as an individual.” (P-02)