Men, machines and masculinities – Deepa Joshi

01 Nov 2018
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Dr Deepa Joshi has, over the past five years, led a team of researchers into issues, conflicts and injustices relating to hydropower development in the Eastern Humalayas. As principal investigator of one of the seven research projects in the DFID-funded, NWO-managed “Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change” programme, she has paid close attention to the dynamics of power and gender. She shares her thoughts on the multiple barriers to hydropower becoming more just.

Can the hydropower sector driven by masculine agendas of harnessing and harvesting natural resources for economic growth and development and manned (pun intended) by male technicians play a positive role in addressing gender inequality? Will “doing gender” engender the hydropower sector? These questions and the research we conducted was inspired by recent development interventions to make hydropower development more gender equitable – by providing hydropower developers and implementors gender toolkits on how to “do gender” in hydropower projects. Our study conducted in 2015 and 2016, analysed the work structures and cultures in two hydropower development companies in the Eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim in India. We also analysed the personal and professional aspirations of the mostly male work force in these two companies.

It is important to note that there is a recent surge in large hydropower (dam) development in transitioning economies in the global south. Hydropower is considered clean, green and climate mitigating, and it is argued by national governments, international financial institutions and investors that these developments will result in ‘win-win’ (environment-economic) solutions. Nonetheless, the social and environmental impacts of large dams on local communities are difficult to minimise and understanding that the impacts of hydropower development are experienced differently by men and women, Oxfam Australia’s ‘Balancing the Scales’ project worked to produce a step-by-step gender impact assessment tool in order to help developers ensure their projects minimise gender harm, as well as find ways to innovatively transform gender inequalities. This toolkit has been implemented in several countries in the Mekong Basin. Our research aimed to analyse whether and how inequalities by gender are understood by engineers and workers “developing” hydropower, to understand how such a “Gender Manual” might be perceived, interpreted and/or applied in any other context.

Our research pointed to hydropower development being identified as a spectacular feat of science and technology. We were told that this task of taming rivers to produce energy in remote, “hostile, wild” environments is something only skilled, trained men (male engineers) can do. This apparently requires men to live and work far away from their homes and families, and to endure numerous risk-prone hardships. This was why, as was explained, women cannot “do hydropower” and that men who cannot adapt and perform to such work conditions are “lesser men”. Such perceptions prevailed even though most men, when we spoke to them individually, did not really seem to “enjoy” such hardships.

Hydropower projects thus symbolise man’s (sic) ability to restructure and control nature (water) and hence, the assumption that this knowledge and skills (engineering know-how) is best suited for men. Thus, both the knowledge to do hydropower and the act of doing hydropower reinforces the masculinities of its male professionals – ascribing to them masculine values of achievement, power and success. In such a setting, excellence in performance is judged by the unquestioningability to do hydropower, to develop energy from water, to make the projects functional and operational. This also explained why the work culture in the offices were hierarchical, rigid and not open to discussions on personal situations and experiences. Doing otherwise: enabling horizontal, inclusive work practices; “questioning” whether or why rivers should be tamed; or what might be the impact of the project on local communities and particularly women amongst them – would be considered as contradicting the symbolic masculinity, being soft and unprofessional. The few women who work in these two offices must adopt these masculine traits and practices.

Is it possible then, we ask, that toolkits on “doing gender” will be adopted and applied in such settings? That engineers committed to performing masculinity reconsider the softer dimensions of why and how hydropower?

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