Leading by example

If the Women's Reservation Bill becomes law, then 181 out of 543 national legislators and 1370 out the 4109 state legislators will be women, significantly altering the (paltry) number of elected women in the world.

However, the bill faces strong political opposition. A common concern is that gender quotas will mainly benefit rich upper caste women and crowd out the representation afforded to other groups, especially Muslims and poor Hindus. A related concern is that powerful men might field their wives or daughters as their political proxies and expect them to do their bidding.

If these were real dangers, they would certainly give pause. If quotas for women reduce representation for the poor and religious minorities, we might want to try a different system —and it is not clear that electing rich women whose every move is controlled by their husbands would help the cause of poor women, or even women in general. But is there any truth to these claims?

Fortunately, we have reliable evidence on both of these questions. India introduced reservation for women at the panchayat level in 1993. We have been evaluating the results of this policy, with Raghabendra Chattopadhyay of IIM Calcutta and others, for over 10 years.

Reservation of the pradhan position improves female representation across the board. In two districts, Birbhum in West Bengal, and Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, we found that female village leaders are as likely as male village leaders to come from the three historically disadvantaged groups of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes. In Birbhum, we see no difference in the representation of Muslims among male and female leaders. In Sitapur, while female reservation reduced male Muslim representation it increased the likelihood that Muslim women would be pradhans. It is simply not true that reservation for women benefits upper caste women at the expense of other under-represented groups.

Moreover, the data clearly show that women leaders are not their husbands' shadows. In Birbhum only 17 per cent of female leaders report having a spouse who was previously a panchayat leader. We find that female leaders take different political decisions to their male counterparts, decisions which better reflect the preferences of women. In particular, at the local level, they invest significantly more in water wells than men do — wells which benefit women much more than men. Electing more women would really make a difference. Our findings strongly contradict the anecdote that nearly every male politician in India is ready to tell — that he met a woman leader in a village, and her husband was calling all the shots.

What these anecdotes reflect, more than women's supposed lack of autonomy, is the prejudice they face. When we asked villagers to evaluate the same political speech, read either by a man or by a woman, we found that those who heard the woman were less likely either to consider the politician to be competent or to agree with the policies she was endorsing.

However, villagers learn from experience: those who have actually been exposed to a female leader, thanks to reservation, betray no biases against women. Further, in villages that were previously reserved for women, women are now more likely to stand for, and win elections. Women are capable leaders, but face strong barriers to being elected, in part due to discrimination. As a result, women's interests are not adequately taken into account in policy making, and the nation loses out on half of its political talent pool. Reservation can help address this.  

Today, India has the chance to set a powerful example for the world. Even in countries where women's rights have been an issue for decades, there's still a hum of prejudice in the background and representation of women in the top echelons of administration (from politics to the boardroom) remains extremely low. Giving capable women access to the powerful public positions that they deserve, and ensuring that their abilities are seen, is the best way to ensure that society learns to vote for women, or promote them, according to their talents, rather than common prejudice.

Duflo teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Pande teaches at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

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