Probing the Minds of Elected Women Representatives on Village Councils in India

By Samir Sathe

The psychological construct of the Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) is a significantly relevant and yet surprisingly ignored subject in India. This article is a synopsis of some of the pathbreaking findings of a probe into the minds of EWRs.

Elected Women Representatives (EWRs) are the harbingers of change in rural political governance, a necessary ingredient for the economically inclusive prosperity in India. And yet, the psychology of EWRs remains unexplored, at worst, and tainted with gender bias, at best. The interrelationships between their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, as well as those of their families, Village Council (VC) members, and villagers reveal to us the underlying variables that could potentially move the needle from stagnation to progress at the grassroots of Indian villages. If EWRs were to play the role of improving the economic well-being of the villagers, perhaps, a necessary condition to make the growth “inclusive”, it is important to fathom the variables that influence their performance in effectively designing and implementing the village level agenda and thereby moving the needle.

In my search of the unconscious mind of EWRs, I examined over 150 emotions to understand what moves this needle and several themes stood out. I have commented on the three of them in this article. First, seven emotions – self-confidence, love, learning, authenticity, survival instinct, social engagement, and fairness have the most significant influence on the performance of EWRs. Second, performing EWRs see their leadership role in Village Councils as that of “mother-leaders” of an extended family of villagers, while underperforming EWRs see it as a competing commitment, which conflicts with their role as homemakers. Third, performing or successful EWRs succeeded in implementing their intended actions, as part of a progress plan drafted by the Village Council (VC). Underperforming EWRs were unable to garner support from VC members or villagers in implementing the agenda.

Exhibit 1 shows the complex tapestry of the influence of these variables on each other, finally influencing the performance of EWRs.

Exhibit 1


Among the three characteristics that characterised the performing EWRs, self-confidence emerged as the most important psychological attribute.

Successful or performing EWRs, unsurprisingly, have a positive mindset shadowing negative emotions. As I proved further, I found an astonishing correlation between the top three attributes that determine success – “Self-confidence”, “love” and “social engagement”. EWRs linked these attributes as “mutually reinforcing” towards their success, as they shared their lives, their struggles, their mental fortitude, and the approach to lives with me. On the other hand, less successful or underperforming EWRs were characterised by the attributes of “self-doubt”, “emotional incapacity” and “irresponsibility”.

Among the three characteristics that characterised the performing EWRs, self-confidence emerged as the most important psychological attribute.

Self-confident and successful EWRs usually solicit good support from family members (especially their husbands) and strongly believe in spreading universal attributes of love. They embrace most of the seven emotional attributes of love, learning, authenticity, fairness, survival instinct, social engagement, and leadership.

EWRs who spread love appear to love themselves. They demonstrate self-worth, self-belief, and self-esteem. EWRs with self-esteem and self-worth usually have strong survival instincts. They learn fast and adapt; this prompts them to make the effort to build the knowledge they need to accomplish their primary task. Spreading love does not come easily unless one loves oneself and has self-esteem and respect. An astounding 92% of the successful EWRs celebrated the ideas of self-esteem and self-respect, while over 80% of the sub-optimal performers thought the idea of self-respect was overrated!

Survival instinct is the primal force that we, as humans, have inherited from animals through evolution, spanning millions of years. In the case of successful EWRs, this trait appears to dominate their responses, helping them to learn and adapt better. Interestingly, it is not only existential anxiety that encourages them to learn; they also have a strong drive to expand their own physical and mental potential; this enables them to learn better and faster.

Spreading love does not come easily unless one loves oneself and has self-esteem and respect.

While the survival instinct is at the level of “self”, the drive to expand the potential is not at the level of “self” but relates to the level of the “family” and to villagers – “the extended family”. It is strongly correlated with a strong sense of responsibility, recalling the phrase “noblesse oblige” or “privilege entails responsibility”; it enables them to work hard to protect their families and extended families. The sense of responsibility that includes extended families also allows EWRs to direct and protect the people they feel responsible for. Both EWRs and villagers offer mutual support and cooperation, realising that they are interdependent parts of the “system” of a village. EWRs also demonstrate a third dimension, of “order”, which is characteristic of effective leaders.

Successful EWRs also share a social identity with their villagers. This finding provides increasing evidence that leaders who can build a common identity are more likely to rally their people to serve a common cause, rather than a cause espoused only by leaders. It seems plausible that leaders such as EWRs, who think of themselves as leading a common cause (advancing the villagers) are more successful than leaders who see themselves as merely occupying a position of duty or authority, as required by legislative changes.

Most EWRs have inherited from their parents or learned from their teachers that fairness is important, both when it comes to outcomes, and when it comes to the process one follows to arrive at a decision. This approach is authentic for women leaders who have overcome difficulties, because they know that the next generation of women will not live better lives if unfair practices and falsehoods that have governed society for centuries can continue, alongside the idea that these practices are necessary for survival. The notion of doing better for society and a burning desire to be useful can be passed on by parents or primary school teachers. More often than men, the EWRs appear to present their true selves, rather than projecting an image. Considering the social setting and their backgrounds, successful EWRs seemed remarkably authentic. This trait elicits a positive response from silent workers in the villages, amplifying the momentum of progress.

Successful EWRs have emotional capability and a huge capacity to reflect. Almost all successful EWRs demonstrate high levels of maturity and stability with respect to their emotions, even in the wake of trauma. Running a Village Council provides a perfect opportunity for them to exercise those faculties. Their primary tasks and roles at home and at work allow them to prioritise, choose, act, and seek feedback all the time. Less successful EWRs need to develop this capacity. In fact, emotionally capable EWRs enhance the emotional capital of the villagers. Collectively, it is a mutually reinforcing and rewarding relationship.

EWRs who suffer from guilt or a lack of self-worth end up doubting themselves, which constrains them in their roles. Emotionally shy EWRs (those unable to express themselves well) have also been found to be controversial at work, generating arguments in the Village Council and from male members.

Significant majority of successful EWRs think of villagers as the extension of their families. This new form of leadership can be termed being a “Mother Leader”, in cases where EWRs perceive themselves as acting like mothers to their extended families and working with them to achieve a common goal.

An astounding 92% of the successful EWRs celebrated the ideas of self-esteem and self-respect.

Looking after the family often comes naturally to these women because they see themselves as “care leaders”. Care leading is a behaviour derived from the instinct to “protect”. It can become an automatic (not authentic and yet positive) response to the situation of finding themselves elected as the leaders of villages. Care leading and protecting a family are behaviours often found in mothers.

EWRs have a strong sense of responsibility, which enables them to work hard to protect their families and extended families. They are also able to make hard choices in discharging their responsibilities. For example, several EWRs have sent their children to better schools in cities to look after villagers (i.e. members of their extended families). They tend to have a clear sense of what is best for their children and extended families. This allows them to win support and respect from the villagers, which in turn enables them to provide better for their children. These EWRs also direct the villagers, which becomes their primary task. EWRs who assume leadership at work tend to expect to be obeyed at home, in cases where their husbands willingly share the home responsibilities. The entire household tends to follow the EWR, even at home.

EWRs do not seek power or a position to fulfil a desire for dominance or control. Instead, they seek opportunities to contribute to their community as a way of finding meaning in life. They treat Village Councils as a platform for that opportunity. Successful EWRs recognise that power will allow them to contribute more and faster; they therefore learn to navigate Village Council politics effectively. By contrast, less successful EWRs view their roles as a job and may be relegated to the minority position in Village Councils.

Successful EWRs have emotional capability and a huge capacity to reflect. Almost all successful EWRs demonstrate high levels of maturity and stability with respect to their emotions, even in the wake of trauma.

EWRs who view their responsibility to the villagers as an additional duty tend to view it as a “competing commitment”  that may interfere with their commitment to their own families. This makes it harder for them to balance their roles as mothers to families and EWRs. 89% of the EWRs who faced these issues and were unable to meet them, met with uncooperative VC members or faced hindrance in implementation, from them, eventually causing delays or delivering a sub-optimal performance.

Successful EWRs have positive social identities and experience identity integration. Social identity  is a meaning attached to the self in the context of social surroundings of an individual. Their self-views are related to how they view their gender-identity and whether it conflicts with their leader-identity. Successful EWRs demonstrate that attributes expected from a woman and expected from a leader need not be conflicting. While gender stereotypes would advocate more affectionate behaviours from mothers while leaders would be expected to demonstrate more assertive, decisive and clinical behaviours, mother-leaders in EWRs defy this paradigm. Unsuccessful or underperforming EWRs inherently experience a tussle between these identities leading to less authentic leader behaviours, impaired decision making, stress and poor motivation to play leader roles often resulting in a spill-over to a role of a mother.

In the EWRs’ concept of their role in the “system” they see their potential selves as a new object of social identity. In that sense, they view themselves as part of the village and as the shaper of a new village or new order. In a strange way, they feel as if they are playing the role of goddesses within the village system. They consider themselves to be both separate individuals and part of the system they lead.

EWRs sometimes lose their own separate identities, apart from their families and the other villagers. Being one with the change has a deeper meaning. Perhaps, this is the very root of EWR’s success; the absence of this root causes other EWRs to be unsuccessful. The notion of being change agents and change itself in the context of their roles, needs a deeper understanding of underlying variables.

Village Council offices are transitional objects for successful EWRs. The objects fill a void, representing the much-cherished concept of “freedom” that womenfolk deserve, away from the walls of homes that confine them to mundane household duties; they also represent a “bond” with the extended families. The offices are vehicles that help them engage socially with the villagers and allow them to protect and direct these members of their extended families. Finally, these platforms offer them an opportunity to become the instrument of change for themselves and the society they live in.

As I reflect on my first affair with the psychological construct of the EWRs, I remain humbled by the inner strength that successful EWRs demonstrate, with such an astonishingly simple demeanour. I loved the humility due to the unawareness of the knowledge of the thermotical construct that is manufactured by the intellectual practising professionals (the community I belong to!) trying to change the world, that already resides in them. A lesson for us is, most certainly, that the change begins with oneself, the notion that EWRs practised fervently, intuitively and unknowingly!

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About the Author

Samir Sathe is an Executive Vice President, Advantage Program, India, at Wadhwani Foundation, a global philanthropic enterprise. Samir is a Master in Change from INSEAD and has 25 years of research, strategy consulting and leadership experience. He is committed to the causes of entrepreneurship, employment and women.


1. Houghton, Pearce, Manz, Courtright & Stewart, 2015

2. Kegan & Laskow, 2001

3. Oyserman & Fryberg, 2006

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.