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.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

The possibility that America will elect its first woman president next November has triggered the inevitable onslaught of one-liners, and also a more serious discussion about how America might change with a woman in the Oval Office. As luck would have it, there's new data out there about the shifts that take place when women run the world. Or at least a bunch of Indian villages.

Rural Indians are learning firsthand what it's like to live under female leadership as a result of a 1991 law that restricted one-third of village council elections to female candidates. The villagers' experiences are analyzed by economists Esther Duflo and Petia Topalova in a recent unpublished study. Using opinion surveys and data on local "public goods"—like schools, roads, and water pumps—Duflo and Topalova find that the villages headed by women invested in more services that benefited the entire community than did those with gender-neutral elections, nearly all of which were won by men. But as the opinion polls showed, for all their effectiveness, the women's governance was literally a thankless effort, with the new leaders getting lower approval ratings than their male counterparts.

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Why study the experiences of Indian villagers to understand the costs and benefits of female leadership? Countries that come closest to gender parity in government, like Sweden and Finland, are economically advanced democracies with universal health care, child care, and generous maternity and paternity leave policies. Contrast this with the list of nations with zero women in national legislatures—Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia, for example—and the pattern becomes clear: Women in government are associated with lots of good things (PDF). But the obvious problem with this sort of exercise is that Scandinavians are different from Saudis in lots of ways. Their progressive attitudes—not to mention all that free child care—may be what allows women to get elected, not the other way around.

To avoid this type of Swede-to-Saudi comparison, social scientists are always on the lookout for "natural experiments" in which we can look at before-after changes within a community rather than making comparisons across very different societies. In this sense, India's decision to put women in charge was an economist's manna from heaven, and the reason that Duflo and Topalova went there for insight on the effects of female leadership. In 1991, almost none of India's village councils were headed by women; the 1991 constitutional amendment passed to redress this imbalance mandated the election of women as pradhans, or council heads, in a third of villages that were chosen entirely at random. This means the villages reserved for female candidates were no different from other villages before the women-only elections.

By 2000, many village councils had been led by women for several years. This was also the year of a countrywide "Millennial Survey" (PDF), which collected information on drinking water, schools, public-health facilities, public transit, and other government services. The surveyors recorded the quantity of these services in each community, and also the quality (measured, for example, by drainage and leaks in water services, and the quality of playground and blackboard facilities in schools). They also ran opinion surveys of community members to poll their satisfaction with the services they received.

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