Is power a zero sum game? Does women’s empowerment lead to increased domestic violence?

I’ve been having an interesting exchange with colleagues at Oxfam America on the nature of power. They argue thatgawain-kripke empowerment is zero sum, i.e. one person acquiring power means that someone else has to lose it. In a new post, OA’s Gawain Kripke sets out their case.

‘The development community should recognize that women’s economic empowerment is a threat to established power holders.

Women’s economic empowerment is a growing subsector within the development field.  There’s a lot of enthusiasm and new initiatives in this area.  And rightly so.  There are all sorts of good reasons to focus on women, and on their economic situation, and on empowerment.

But there’s a tendency to think of women’s economic empowerment as an unmitigated good.  Or perhaps to hope that it’s an unmitigated good and ignore the strong possibility that there are negative consequences as well.

That’s why I think this new paper by my colleagues is really useful and important. The paper makes an effort to parse out the impact on “domestic violence” of women’s economic empowerment.  Unfortunately, there is not enough research to fully understand the linkages and correlations between the two.  The anecdotal evidence is mixed.  Yes, women’s economic empowerment has many benefits to women, their families, communities and even to countries.  But it also seems true – at least in some cases — that it causes stress and conflict within households and communities.

When you think on it, it’s not surprising that husbands and fathers might feel threatened by empowered wives and daughters.  More senior women might feel threatened by empowered younger women.  That’s seems obvious, even natural.  And that perceived threat might provoke negative reactions, even violence.

So why haven’t practitioners – Oxfam included – made sure that economic empowerment projects have strong strategies and safeguards to handle any blowback?

Women in a Burkina Faso Saving for Change group hold their weekly meeting. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America
Women in a Burkina Faso Saving for Change group hold their weekly meeting. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

I think it has to do with our mindset.  We tend to think of development as a technical enterprise, devoid of power and political content.  The mental frame is something like a public health model – where improving things for some people (i.e. vaccines or better sanitation) doesn’t hurt other people and, in fact, has positive externalities.  A lot of economics is built on frames like this, the Ricardian model, where the sum is greater than the parts and everyone can gain.  Welfare of some can improve at the same time that the welfare of others improves.

But I think power is different.  I think power is zero-sum.  If your power increases, then, necessarily, my power decreases.  There are various definitions and understandings of power.  But I think the most useful understanding of power is the ability of one actor (individual, party, clique, etc.) to compel or influence others to do one’s will.  In voting, expanding the franchise to new groups of voters necessarily dilutes the power of incumbent voters.  Influencing other key decisions is the same.  If one person decides without any consideration for others, all power is held by that person.  If the decision must be shared by two people, the power of each is halved.

We can use the term “empowerment” glibly.  It seems like a good thing and it fits our principles to “help people to help themselves.”   We pursue women’s economic empowerment and think that everyone will be cheered by the better incomes that women make.  But if we’re serious about empowerment, we need to recognize it necessarily means threatening incumbent power holders.  It means women will have more money, more decision-making control, more autonomy, more agency, more influence, more power.  And it is totally predictable that incumbents will resist.  And even when incumbents don’t resist directly there may be social and psychological payments exacted.  And as Frederick Douglass said, “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Thanks Gawain. It’s a useful reminder of the potential risks involved in empowerment programmes, but I think it’s based on a partial unity is strength cartoonunderstanding of the nature of power. I often use the ‘four powers’ model developed by Jo Rowlands, which sees four different kinds of power at work:

  1. Power within: personal self confidence and a sense of rights and entitlement
  2. Power with: collective power, through organization, solidarity and joint action
  3. Power to: meaning effective choice (agency), the capability to decide actions and carry them out
  4. Power over: the power of hierarchy and domination, as described above.

Aspects of these different forms of power are indeed zero sum, but plenty are not. It seems very reductionist to argue that women getting the vote or joining a trade union somehow significantly disempowers men; and domestic violence programmes like We Can have found that men reported marked improvements in their own quality of life from respecting women’s rights in the home, not least because the sex improved, according to some (well, duh).

Thinking of things like trade unions, I wonder if your view of power is culturally determined – do Americans see it as zero sum, Europeans as more positive, with Brits somewhere in between? What do you think?

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9 Responses to “Is power a zero sum game? Does women’s empowerment lead to increased domestic violence?”
  1. Alistair Leadbetter

    I’m not sure it has to be zero sum. It isn’t zero sum if the attitudes of the various people and organisations involved change their attitudes to their positions and goals and also change their behaviours. For example, If a women in a relationship becomes more empowered and if her husband doesn’t change his attitudes to his own position and that of his wife then it is zero sum. If he welcomes his wife’s empowerment and chooses to work positively in the new order then they can both become more empowered and achieve more. If he doesn’t change his attitudes then his power will probably be eroded and he may become resentful, angry and possibly violent.

    Perhaps the same logic applies to the political sphere too.

  2. Patrick Hagan

    While I would agree that it is not absolutely zero sum, unfortunately I think perception and attribution matter as well. In the example Alistair gives we can easily see a way that total power of the couple/family both increases and is embraced (and this is obviously the fundamental rational of female economic empowerment… that this one absolute economic good results in multiple levels of social goods). However we know from psychology that much of happiness is assessed on “relative” terms: not how much do I have, but how much do I perceive I have in relation to you.
    As a result negative reactions to female empowerment are utterly predictable, even where the empowerment effect results in an increase in the couples total power, as the distribution of power is being changed. Obviously not all people will greet this change with negative reactions, but it is highly probable that a section of the population will. The real problem is that I don’t think we know a lot about how to manage such power transitions to push more people into the “acceptance” or even “embracing” perception.
    Attributions about any absolute change in power will also impact on perceived outcomes and acceptance of the changes. While we may be able to methodologically demonstrate that it is the empowerment that has led to better outcomes, the individuals involved will be experiencing the full complexity of their lives (shock!). They may choose to attribute the positive outcomes to unrelated changes, and attribute negative ones to the empowerment process. Once again I don’t know how much we know about managing attribution of outcome in development processes.

  3. gawain kripke

    Hi duncan, thanks for engaging and for the other good comments here.

    As in a lot of conceptual debates, I’m a “hawk” in wanting “power” to have a clear and narrow definition. I think it’s most useful as a concept that way. So, I think, for operational purposes only your last, “power over” is really power. The other “powers” that you and Rowland (must now go read) describe are more in the nature of capacities or processes or assets (social capital). They certainly are contributory to gaining power, and they may be necessary to gaining power, but they are not, in themselves, power.

    Maybe it’s better to refine the concept to “political power” recognizing that politics occurs everywhere and at every level.

    Another issue is that I think people tend to confuse power with well-being (or welfare). It’s counter-intuitive, perhaps, but a person’s well-being isn’t necessarily improved by gaining more power and certainly societies tend to suffer as power is more concentrated. Using examples from above, a family might be much more harmonious and prosperous if power is ceded from the patriarch. Likewise, more pluralism in organizations and political systems makes for better functioning and more equitable distribution of benefits. You have to “let go” to be happy.

    Of course, you have to have some power in order to be well, so there’s some kind of curve that has declining and eventually negative returns for gaining power (assuming I’m right that power is a constrained resource).

    We’re all happier living with less conflict and where conflict has orderly and peaceable resolution, even if it requires more compromise and more “second best” options.

  4. Peter Morgan

    If I have some power A and someone else has some power B, do we then have power A+B between us? That is, is power additive at all? If not, power is not subject to the mathematical concept of a zero-sum game. How do we characterize negative power? If we take power, implausibly, to be one-dimensional, almost any relation is possible, only a vanishingly small proportion of which have the additive form f(A)+f(B). My power might be lessened by you being more powerful, but if I’m associated with you and you become more powerful, that might make me more powerful (but the article and comments both introduce such ideas, so I won’t belabor them). Mathematics aside, the answer here seems to be that if people perceive power as a zero-sum game they likely will feel threatened, so ways need to be found to persuade people that it is not anything like a zero-sum game, the idea of which has become more prevalent than people’s knowledge and understanding of mathematical models.

    My impression is that people who deal extensively in power have an intuitive understanding of a network of relationships and the different ways in which changes might be effected by various pressures or influences that can actually be applied to nodes of the network. My impression is that NGOs and other political actors looking for ways to negotiate these networks have to understand and find ways to influence the /different/ intuitive understandings either of at least key players in the network (behind the scenes, as it were) or else, perhaps preferably, of a significant fraction of everyone in the network. The various intuitive understandings of the network seem to be a fundamental aspect of each node of the network. Oy Vey, much more complex than zero-sum games.

  5. Craig Valters

    Thanks for an interesting post. I don’t think power should be seen as zero-sum – and to do so is a big analytical step backwards. For one thing, there can be all sorts of shifts in power relations which create win-win situations (even where we previously thought it would be win-lose). No time to get into the philosophy of this (Foucault anyone?!), so I’ll have to settle for posting a quote which makes my first point above:

    “Not seeing power as a zero-sum game has long been a preoccupation of Chambers who argues that positive change can be more easily achieved through identifying win-win situations (Saxena et al. 1989). In his article in this IDS Bulletin, he comments that by assuming that power is never given up without a fight, those struggling for social justice may be missing important opportunities for engaging with the powerful. An example would be working with decision-makers on the assumption that they are trying their best but are constrained by the inadequacies of their own bureaucratic organisations. Resistance can be reduced by inviting more people to help them seize such opportunities.” See p. 7-8

    More generally, the powercube website can be a really helpful resource for those trying to get to grips with power analysis (although I feel like it may not be in fashion right now…)

  6. Coming in a little late to this conversation, I’d suggest that power is neither always, nor never, a zero sum game; circumstances vary. But the zero sum logic is applied far more often than is warranted. And I’d certainly agree on the value of identifying win-win situations, as stressed by Robert Chambers and colleagues. Within a household, there are plenty of ways to see why a woman’s increased power should not necessarily lead to a man’s decreased power; it’s all a matter of how such things are acted out (no surprises that this includes what goes on in the marital bed, but I would think twice about trying to incorporate such a question in project M&E). As for the power cube – I’ve found it useful for one-time analyses, but less helpful for plotting changes in power dynamics.
    There was, however, another question: why haven’t practitioners made sure that economic empowerment projects have strong strategies and safeguards to handle any blowback? As a practitioner, I’d agree we haven’t done enough, but we have at least sometimes tried. For example, in a women’s economic empowerment project in Bangladesh, we tracked how women perceived their power of decision-making within the family – in order to find out whether as a result making a better income, they felt their opinions were taken more into account. The correlation was positive. However, given that a 2011 study in Bangladesh showed that 65% of women reported experiencing physical violence at the hands of their current partner, I really wish we had asked specifically about this point ( ). It’s something to take into account in future.
    And just to add to anecdotal evidence, I have heard of women’s income-generating projects (not implemented by Helvetas!) in Bolivia that failed entirely due to jealous husbands – although the reason was not immediately realized. Gender based violence is one of those issues that if we never ask the right questions, we may never find out…

  7. There has been some interesting discussion on financial empowerment of women and the resultant, occasional negative– and sometimes violent– backlash from men in the savings group literature and practitioner community.

    CARE put out an excellent report on domestic violence and male-capture of women’s earnings within families of women savings group members. [PDF:

    CRS uses family financial planning modules in some countries as part of their SILC methodology, encouraging savings group members to discuss and negotiate financial decisions together.

    Conversely, IRC has found evidence that savings groups paired with a psychosocial therapy program for PTSD can help rape survivors heal from the interconnected mental and material impacts of sexual violence. Study background here [PDF: and some discussion of results here [].

    Members of Oxfam’s Saving for Change savings groups in Guatemala and El Salvador had different outcomes: women used their groups as spaces to support domestic violence survivors and as organizing platforms to promote women’s needs within their communities. Jeff Ashe and I profiled these groups in chapter 5 of our book on savings groups, In Their Own Hands [].