Brief 8: Powerful women: does exposure reduce bias?



Harvard Center for International Development, Working Paper No. 175, July Beaman, Lori, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande, and Petia Topalova (2008)

A study of randomly assigned gender quotas in Indian village councils finds that exposure to female leaders does not change villagers’ preference for male leaders, but does reduce gender stereotypes and eliminate male villagers’ negative perception of female leader effectiveness.  Ten years after the implementation of the quota policy, women were found to be more likely to run for and win elections.

In 2006, women led the governments of only seven countries and totalled 17 percent of parliamentarians globally.  While female participation in politics remains low, numerous countries have begun affirmative action policies in recent years. 

Policymakers and scholars have suggested that bias against women in politics may be malleable.  They “emphasize the importance of an initial cohort of female politicians and argue that once voters learn that women are no less effective than male politicians, gender bias in politics will diminish.”  While over 100 such national programs are active and have increased the number of women in politics, the authors comment that “little is known about their impact on voter attitudes towards female leaders.” 

The authors propose a model of quotas based on voter risk aversion.  They write that “quotas, by exposing voters to a female leader, can improve the precision of voters’ information about the expected effectiveness of future female leaders. 

Quotas could, therefore, reduce statistical discrimination.  Unless women make incompetent leaders (causing voters to update negatively), mandated exposure can improve the perception of women leaders’ effectiveness simply by reducing the risk associated with electing a woman.”  They note that “Our model suggests that political reservation is unlikely to reduce taste discrimination.  Instead, we hypothesize that the main channel by which reservation influences voter beliefs is enhanced information on prospective women leaders.  A natural consequence of the increase in information would be a greater association of women with leadership activities.”

Methodologically, the fact that one third of village council positions have been randomly reserved for women in the middle-income Indian state of West Bengal since 1998 allows the authors to determine the causal effect of quotas on villager perceptions of female leaders.  Three randomly selected villages in each of West Bengal’s 165 councils (Gram Panchayats) were surveyed.  Household and individual surveys were administered to a random sample of 15 households in each village.  West Bengal has been through two electoral cycles since the 1998 legislation, enabling the authors to examine villager views towards actual and hypothetical female leaders in councils that have been reserved for women once, twice, or never.  The study uses some novel social psychology methods to determine villager attitudes towards female leaders.  

Firstly, voters’ explicit “taste” for female leaders is evaluated through their “stated feelings towards the general idea of male and female leaders.”  Secondly, voters’ implicit “taste” for female leaders is assessed with Implicit Association Tests, “an experimental method now widely used in social psychology, which relies on the idea that respondents who more easily pair two concepts in a rapid categorization test more strongly associate those concepts.”  The study assessed villagers’ associations of male and female names with leadership and domestic tasks—e.g. public speaking versus eating puffed rice.  Gender-neutral domestic activities were chosen to avoid introducing bias.  Thirdly, the study assessed villager perceptions of female leaders’ effectiveness by experimentally manipulating leader gender in recorded speeches and vignettes. 

The authors find that in villages without quotas for female leaders, villagers and especially men are averse to the idea of female leaders.  Men rate their feelings towards female leaders one point lower than towards male leaders on a scale of ten, perceive female leaders as less effective, and associate male leaders with “good” more than their female counterparts on IAT tests.  Leader decisions were perceived to be 0.05 standard deviations worse when gender was manipulated to be female rather than male.  Female evaluation of female leaders was only slightly less negative than that by men.

Views were considerably different in villages with quota requirements after two electoral cycles.  Quotas did not change villagers’ stated preference for male leaders nor their “taste” for them as measured by the IAT test.  However, quotas reduced male villagers’ association of women with domestic tasks and greatly increased their perception of female leader effectiveness.  The authors report that “In the speech and vignette experiments, we find that male villagers who have been required to have a female leader consider hypothetical female and male leaders equally effective.”  They conclude that “While reservation does not make male villagers more sympathetic to the idea of female leaders, it makes them recognize that women can lead.”  An initial cohort of female politicians was important in changing male perceptions.  The authors report that “The first time men are exposed to a female Pradhan [village councillor]… they consider her ineffective.  This difference disappears the second time around.”  However—and interestingly—quotas did not improve female villagers’ perception of female leaders.  The authors suggest that this is because women in West Bengal have a lower level of engagement with politics than men.

Beyond causing men to view female politicians as more effective and able to lead, quotas led to a significant increase in women running for office in subsequent years.  In the 2008 village council elections, as compared to councils that had positions reserved for women once or never, those that had a reserved position for the past two electoral cycles had twice as many women win unreserved positions.

Other notable findings include that male and female village councillors are equally effective in providing public goods.  Male and female village councillors were demographically different, with men older, more educated, and from wealthier backgrounds.  And lastly, villager bias was found to reduce job and life satisfaction for female politicians in the first cohort.  However, this effect disappears for the second cohort.

The authors conclude that “while deep preferences and social norms are difficult to erode, affirmative actions programs can significantly improve perceptions of female leader effectiveness and reduce statistical discrimination against women in leadership positions. Finally, we find striking evidence that political reservation leads to significant electoral gains for women in the medium-run.”  On a broader scale, this study provides evidence that public policy can influence voter beliefs and discrimination.  Therefore, they argue that affirmative action programs “may play an important medium-run role.”

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