Does the electoral success of women in India encourage others to follow in their footsteps? Not according to research by Sonia Bhalotra, Irma Clots-Figueras and Lakshmi Iyer, published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.
Their analysis of data on India’s state legislative assemblies over three decades finds no evidence that new women are encouraged to contest elections following a woman’s electoral victory. Indeed, in some states where gender bias is known to be deeply entrenched, a woman’s electoral victory is followed by a decline in the share of new women candidates in the next election.
Similarly, the study shows, there is no increase in the entry of new Muslim candidates following a Muslim winning office. These results suggest that there are institutionalised barriers to entry into politics of socially and economically disadvantaged groups. The researchers conclude that explicit policy initiatives are needed to promote the entry of new women into the political arena.
They note that women are under-represented in political office around the world, accounting for only 23% of the membership of national parliaments globally. In 2015, for example, they comprised 12% of India’s national legislators, 19% of the US Congress and 29% of the UK’s House of Commons.
The numerical under-representation of women in politics is often associated with under-representation on substantive policy issues. Several studies have documented that increasing women’s political representation results in policy choices that are more favourable to women (such as greater willingness to report crimes against them).
Women’s political participation has also been shown to improve broader development outcomes including infant mortality, education, corruption and economic activity. This would suggest that women’s under-representation in political office disadvantages one half of society, and may even have additional social costs.
Using data from India’s state legislative assemblies over three decades (1980-2007), the new study documents that the small share of women candidates is an important proximate barrier to the presence of women in political office: women comprise 5.5% of election winners in the data, but only 4.4% of electoral candidates.
The researchers examine whether the electoral success of women leads to subsequent increases in women’s participation as political candidates. A woman winning an election could act as a role model for other women thinking about contesting, or changing the possibly gender-biased perceptions of voters or parties.
Since women would be more likely both to contest and to win in women-friendly areas, the study compares constituencies where women narrowly won in elections against men and constituencies where they narrow lost to men, after verifying that these places are observably similar in terms of demographics and political history.
The analysis yields four main insights. First, a woman’s electoral victory leads to an increase in the share of women candidates from major parties in the next election. But this is primarily driven by an increased propensity of the incumbent woman to seek re-election.
This incumbency effect on candidacy is important in India where 34% of female incumbents and 28% of male incumbents do not run for re-election despite the absence of any term limits. But there are no spillover effects of observing a woman’s victory: other parties do not switch to fielding women candidates, and there is no increase in female candidacy in nearby constituencies.
Second, there is no evidence that new women are encouraged to contest elections. In fact, in the northern and western states of India, where gender bias is known to be deeply entrenched, a woman’s electoral victory is followed by a statistically significant 3.2 percentage point decline in the share of new women candidates in the next election, while the overall female candidate share rises by 5.2 percentage points.
In contrast, in less gender-biased states, overall female candidate share rises by 14 percentage points, and the share of new female candidates is unchanged. These findings indicate there is persistent bias and possibly intensified (party or voter) bias against women in gender-unequal states following women’s electoral victories.
Third, implementation of a gender quota in local governments (via a 1993 constitutional amendment) increases the overall candidacy response in gender-biased states, but there is still a decline in the entry of new candidates. This makes it unlikely that the finding that no new women enter politics is driven by a shortage of suitable women candidates.
Fourth, the researchers conduct a parallel analysis for Muslims, who form India’s largest religious minority, who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and who are under-represented in political office.
The estimates for Muslims are strikingly similar to those for women: there is no increase in the entry of new Muslim candidates following a Muslim winning office, and a stronger candidacy response in states in which Muslims are less disadvantaged. As Muslim candidates are predominantly male, this makes it unlikely that the results for women are on account of gender-specific constraints such as family commitments.
The fact that the competitive election of women or Muslims to state assemblies does not stimulate significantly greater candidate entry from these groups would appear to reflect institutionalised barriers to entry into politics of socially and economically disadvantaged groups. Explicit policy initiatives are therefore needed to stimulate the entry of new women into the political arena.
‘Pathbreakers? Women’s Electoral Success and Future Political Participation’ by Sonia Bhalotra, Irma Clots-Figueras and Lakshmi Iyer is published in the August 2018 issue of the Economic Journal.