Lessons from India in gender politics.

The search for better economic policy.
Nov. 27 2007 4:10 PM

It Takes a Village

 … to fail to thank its female leader, no matter how good she is.

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First, the encouraging news from India's social experiment with female leadership. Duflo and Topalova found that communities with women as pradhans had larger quantities of key public services overall. Nor was quality sacrificed for quantity—facilities in the women-led villages were of at least as high quality on average as in the communities with traditional male leadership. The greatest improvement was in drinking water, the public amenity found to be most valued by women in earlier research (PDF)—with 30 percent more taps and hand pumps in the women-pradhan villages. So while the female pradhans were working for the general good, they were working particularly hard to provide the services valued by their fellow women. They were also less corrupt—villagers with female-headed councils were 25 percent less likely to report having to pay bribes to access basic services like getting ration cards or receiving medical attention.

Now, the bad news. India's female pradhans were remarkably unappreciated for their efforts. Despite the objective upgrades in village amenities, both men and women living in villages headed by women expressed lower satisfaction with public services. This was true even for water—the level of dissatisfaction was 13 percent higher in women-led communities. In fact, there was even greater dissatisfaction about health facilities, a public service not even controlled by the local village council!

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Why this disconnect between the performance and recognition of female leaders? Duflo and Topalova are engaged in further research to try to figure this out. They may wish to consult with Heidi Roizen, a hard-charging Silicon Valley venture capitalist and the subject of a Harvard Business School case study on business networking. How was Ms. Roizen perceived by students who read of her assertive style in the case? It depends whether she was presented as a man or as a woman. In an experiment on gender perceptions, psychologists Cameron Anderson and Francis Flynn gave one group of MBA students the original Heidi Roizen case for later in-class discussion, while the other half received a copy that was identical in every way, except that "Heidi" became "Howard."

In a study currently under review, Anderson and Flynn report that while both Howard and Heidi were rated as equally competent (they were the same person, after all), students described the female version of the character as overly aggressive, and were much less likely to want to work with or hire her. So the decisive, assertive traits that are often valued in leaders are received very differently when observed in women than when seen in men. Howard was a go-getter. Heidi was unlikably power-hungry.

In repeated polls, potential voters similarly find Hillary Clinton extremely competent yet not particularly likable. On Slate's "XX Factor," there's been lots of back and forth (scroll down and start with the entry "Bitches and Polls") about how these marks relate to Clinton's gender.  If the experiences of India's female pradhans are any indication, even if Americans are better off after another Clinton administration, they won't line up to thank Hillary. And she may still find herself looking for a new job in 2012. When the women pradhans that came to power under the 1991 law had to compete with male candidates after their first terms in office, almost none were voted in for a second term. But there is some preliminary evidence (PDF) that the success of India's first wave of female pradhans is starting to change attitudes, perhaps bringing India one step closer to gender-neutral village politics. If Hillary wins the 2008 election but turns out to be a one-term president, she too could be consoled, perhaps, by the possibility that she's making a first landing for gender-neutral presidential politics so the women who come after her won't have to.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.