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 The villagers' experiences are analyzed by economists Esther Duflo and Petia Topalova in a recent unpublished study.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.
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.
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!
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.