Empowerment and Community Participation: Does Gender Make a Difference?

Article excerpt

The study discussed in this article examines the effects of client participation on empowerment, with special emphasis on gender. A group of community activists in a low-income neighborhood in central Israel was assessed by community participation on three scales and their perceived empowerment on two scales. The findings suggest different relationships between types of participation and empowerment by gender. Gender did not have a significant main effect on empowerment, and its effects only became evident when it interacted with participation. This article discusses the nature of empowerment and its measurement and analyzes the connection between participation and empowerment. Because male and female respondents appeared to reach empowerment in different ways, the implications for workers in the helping professions are examined.

Key words: community participation; empowerment; gender

The study discussed in this article examined the relationship among community participation, personal empowerment, and gender. Although there are studies that show no differences between men and women on either participation or empowerment, this is not in accordance with our experience. Moreover, some studies, in which all or most of the respondents were women, clearly postulate differences between men's and women's empowerment and involvement in the community. We therefore examined a group of community activists, a population not sufficiently studied in the literature, and attempted to find the differences in the way men and women participate in and achieve different kinds of empowerment.

EMPOWERMENT LITERATURE

Empowerment as a concept in the helping profession has been recognized under several guises for many years. Its operational and conceptual definitions, however, are still being formulated. It is used as a goal or outcome--feeling powerful, worthy of self-esteem, competent--and as a process, both personal and professional, other-oriented--modifying personal and structural conditions to allow people to achieve power and empowerment (Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995; Swift & Levin, 1987; Zimmerman, 1995).

Zimmerman (1990a) argued cogently that "psychological empowerment" is far more than just a personality variable. It refers to individuals and their ability to cope, but does not ignore ecological, cultural, and structural influences. It includes intrapsychic variables such as motivation, self-efficacy, and locus of control but puts them in ecological and cultural contexts.

Solomon's (1976) definition of empowerment practice emphasized removing blocks to power or their effects ("learned hopefulness" in the phrase of Zimmerman, 1990b). We use the definition preferred by Perkins and Zimmerman (1995): "a process by which people gain control over their lives, democratic participation in the life of their community, and a critical understanding of their environment" (p. 570). This definition emphasizes the essential connections between empowerment and ecology (Serrano-Garcia & Bond, 1994; Trickett, 1994), and stresses the connection between them through a feeling of control.

What are the essential elements of psychological empowerment and, particularly, which of them can be and have been measured? Zimmerman and Rappaport (1988) used a number of personality, cognitive, motivational, and behavioral variables: internal locus of control, chance control, belief in powerful others, control ideology, self-efficacy, sense of mastery, perceived competence, political efficacy, desire for control, civic duty, leadership, alienation, community activities, and level of involvement in organizations (see also Zimmerman, 1990b). Zimmerman and Zahniser (1991) emphasized sociopolitical control and developed variables of leadership competence and policy control. Zimmerman et al. (1992) added perceived effectiveness of actions and perceived difficulty of problems. (See Zimmerman, 1995, for a summary of the state of the art. …