Blog Emerging Gender Topics in Public Administration

Going with the Flow: Gender in Public Administration 

By: Nicole Humphrey

Within the field of public administration scholars have conducted decades of research on gender in the public sector, providing an extensive collection of scholarship informing our understanding of gender. The recently published, Handbook on Gender and Public Administration continues this line of research, helping the field to continue its exploration of gender. Within this volume, my chapter explores gender and public service motivation (PSM). 

My central argument in this chapter is that to improve our understanding of gender and public service motivation, we must grapple with the complexities of gender. Specifically, we must avoid viewing gender as a binary concept and begin exploring gender as a social structure. Social structures are human-made restrictions on the actions and thoughts of people (Blau, 1977; Burt, 1982; Giddens, 1984). Viewing gender as a social structure, we can describe it as a concept restricting human behavior in relation to an individual’s display of masculinity and femininity. Social structures are constantly changing. As Risman (2004) notes, “structures not only act on people; people act on social structures” (p. 432). This means that societal gender norms and expectations can change—people can challenge gendered expectations and display their gender how they want. 

Why is viewing gender as a social structure helpful? In public administration scholarship we often rely on a binary view of gender that emphasizes distinct behaviors of men and women based on common expectations of masculinity and femininity. For instance, in PSM literature, scholars tend to theorize that women are motivated more by compassion, based on assumed behaviors associated with femininity. However, empirical evidence has often challenged this assumption (Moynihand & Pandey, 2007; Bright, 2005; Leisink & Steijn, 2009; DeHart-Davis et al., 2006). As Risman (2004) notes, people have autonomy over how they interact and counter the gender social structure. This means people can push back on the social structure of gender and perform gender in ways that do not align with traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. If we recognize this, it allows us to theorize about how gender shapes behavior and motivation more effectively when research findings conflict with our assumptions.  

In addition, viewing gender as a social structure pushes us to expand our research on gender topics. Historically, when we have discussed gender in public administration, we have focused on studying differences in behaviors and outcomes among men and women. When we move beyond viewing gender as binary categories, we can begin to more regularly study the experiences of people that identify as transgender, gender fluid, or nonbinary. Recent research highlights that the number of children and teenagers that identify as nonbinary or transgender is increasing (Diamond, 2020). If we intend to have a more complete understanding of gender, our work must give more attention to individuals identifying as transgender, gender fluid, or nonbinary.

What is important to remember is that gender norms are changing, and our research needs to reflect these changes. In short, we need to be willing to go with the flow. One way that we can do this is to no longer look at gender as binary categories (i.e., man and woman), but instead allow gender it exist with fluidity. While conceptualizing gender as a social structure complicates our understanding of gender, doing so will provide the field of public administration with an understanding of gender that is more inclusive. 

Blau, P. M. (1977). Inequality and heterogeneity: A primitive theory of social structure. Free Press New York.

Bright, L. (2005). Public Employees with High Levels of Public Service Motivation: Who Are They, Where Are They, and What do They Want? Review of Public Personnel Administration, 25(2), 138–154. 

Burt, R. S. (1982). Toward a structural theory of action: Network models of social structure, perception, and action. Academic Press New York.

DeHart-Davis, L., Marlowe, J., & Pandey, S. K. (2006). Gender dimensions of public service motivation. Public Administration Review, 66(6), 873–887.

Diamond, L. M. (2020). Gender Fluidity and Nonbinary Gender Identities Among Children and Adolescents. Child Development Perspectives, 14(2), 110–115. 

Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. University of California Press.

Leisink, P., & Steijn, B. (2009). Public service motivation and job performance of public sector employees in the Netherlands. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 75(1), 35–52.

Moynihan, D. P., & Pandey, S. K. (2007). The role of organizations in fostering public service motivation. Public Administration Review, 67(1), 40–53.

Risman, B. J. (2004). Gender as a social structure: Theory wrestling with activism. Gender & Society, 18(4), 429–450.

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About the author:

Nicole Humphrey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami. Her research connects public administration and organizational behavior, primarily focusing on emotional labor, diversity, and equity. She has been published in several journals, including Review of Public Personnel Administration and Administration & Society