07/03/2014 - 05:08

Mothers, wives, decision makers

Anandiben Patel, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, recently announced that her government would renew its efforts to increase women's representation in the state's police force to 33 percent. This announcement may seem—even if Gujarat reaches its goal of employing nearly 20,000 policewomen instead of today's roughly 2,500—tenuously connected to this roundtable's theme of increasing women's influence over nuclear policy making. But the initiative is relevant because of Patel's declaration that “When a mother has prepared herself to serve … society, state, and the country, we have to provide them special training and special space.”

This is a crucial point. Achieving gender balance in the political and administrative affairs of a nation requires recognizing the varied tasks that women perform. In most societies, women have greater family responsibilities than do men. These responsibilities, and the moral expectations that surround them, tend to restrict women's freedom. But such constraints can be no excuse for institutional discrimination. Women who fulfill traditional roles as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and so on must not be presumed incapacitated—they must not be excluded from fulfilling important public functions (functions that may range from enforcing the law to making critical decisions about nuclear weapons).

Institutions must place their faith in qualified women, regardless of their family situations. In India, institutions would do well to remember that women such as Sujatha Singh and Chokila Iyer (two foreign secretaries) and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not allow family responsibilities to prevent them from serving the Indian government.

If governmental institutions fail to ensure adequate representation for women, they will fail in their mandates to advance development, stability, security, and human rights. And policy makers will struggle to achieve sustainable peace if women are excluded from decision making processes. I argued in Round One that women may be "more peace-loving than men—less conflict-prone, more humane and diplomatic." Thus their participation in nuclear decision making has to be encouraged—and this will often mean that states must make accommodations for working women with families.

At the same time, it's worth noting that achieving gender equity may depend less on the absolute numbers of women in institutions than on providing opportunities for visionary, pragmatic women to occupy positions of real power. Once women occupy crucial institutional positions, a better work environment for other women is often guaranteed. In Round Two, I discussed the doors that Chonira Belliappa Muthamma opened for women who followed her in the Indian Foreign Service. It is women such as Muthamma who shatter glass ceilings—even as they do critical work in policy formulation.

Often, women work twice as hard as men to achieve positions of influence. Once in those positions, they frequently must work harder than men to stay there. Relying on the perseverance that their gender requires them to demonstrate, women may well alter the discourse on nuclear weapons so that global disarmament is finally achieved.