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A Virtuous Circle: Exposure Effects and India’s Reservations Policy for Women

April 19, 2010

My apologies for the long hiatus. I’ve been slacking off since I submitted my dissertation and have spent my spare time cleaning the house instead of blogging. The good news is that the chaos of our house has been contained– for the moment anyway.

I’m now ready to resume with a multi-part series on women in politics. It seems like the time is now ripe given that India’s upper house  of parliament (Rajya Sabha) recently passed a historic bill (Mar 9 2010) that will reserve one-third of seats in India’s lower house of parliament and its state legislative assemblies for women. If all goes as planned in the lower house (Lok Sabha), the bill will make it through parliament sometime soon. Then, it will have just one more hurdle to clear: 15 of India’s 28 states will need to pass it before it officially becomes law. If it passes– and I hope it will– then the number of women in the lower house of parliament will go from 59 to 181 (out of 545 seats).  In the upper house, the number of women (21 out of 245) would not change because these seats are elected by the state assemblies. The assignment of which seats will be reserved for women will be done by random assignment. Each seat will be reserved for women once every three elections.

The story has caught the world’s attention. It’s one thing when Sweden– the poster child country for social equality and all things good— establishes gender quotas. It signals something else altogether when India, a developing country and potential future superpower, has made gender such a high priority. We are even starting to see spillover effects: Sri Lanka has been inspired to bring in a quota for female parliamentarians.

Several big media outlets covered the story: The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, and the BBC (with video clip), but the most detailed news article about the nitty gritty politics comes from the Inter Press Service (IPS).

A couple of months ago, I mentioned the research of Esther Duflo in one of my posts. This is the perfect place to say more about her research. She and her colleagues (at the MIT Poverty Lab) have been conducting field experiments and examining data on natural experiments– the results of which have been both academically interesting and also policy relevant. But first, a few words on experiments.

Field experiments and natural experiments

The best way to understand these types of studies is to think of what pharmaceutical companies do when they test new drugs. They take two groups of people which are roughly the same in composition, administer the drug to one group and give the other group a placebo (or do nothing) to them. The results between the two groups are compared to see if the drug had the intended effect. (Read more on double-blind trials.)

Now apply this method to the social sciences. For example, if you want to know if a given policy intervention has an impact, it’s possible to do follow this methodology and get a decisive answer. Apply the “treatment” to one group but not the other, and then compare. Carrying out this method is more complicated than I’m letting on– you need to be careful about bias, your groups need to be large enough, information should not be shared between the groups, etc. It also happens to be logistically difficult to carry out these types of experiments– not to mention expensive– but the upside is that you can find out unambiguously if a given intervention works. It’s possible to establish causality– a rare claim for social science research. In this sense, it is the gold standard. Recently, experiments have become a “hot” academic area, particularly for economists, sociologists, and political scientists.

The difference between field experiments and natural experiments is that field experiments have “treatments” that are purposely introduced. In natural experiments, the treatment happens naturally– that is to say, without intervention from the person who is studying the phenomenon. The effects of the treatment can then be measured.

A note on Indian politics

To understand the results of Duflo et al.’s research, a few words about the Indian political system first. In 1992, an amendment to the Indian constitution paved the way for a new quota system to be instituted at the village (Gram Panchayat) level. In exchange for greater powers for the Gram Panchayats, states would require their GPs to allocate one-third of the seats at the village council level to women as well as requiring that one-third of the village chiefs (pradhans) be female. Most, but not all, of India’s states chose to adopt the new reservations (quota) policy.

While India is not the first country to impose quotas in its attempts to increase the number of women politicians, the fact that the country instituted the quotas using a random allocation method created ideal conditions for natural experiments. It became possible to observe the effects of quotas and compare it directly with those areas with no quotas.

Women as proxies for powerful men?

So what have these quotas for women politicians at the village level been able to tell us? Well, Duflo and Raghab Chattopadhyay set out to determine whether women elected through the quota seats performed differently than their male counterparts. Would they be more responsive to their female constituents’ needs? Or would they simply do what their male backers (husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles) told them to do? In other words, would they end up effectively as proxies for their male relatives?

The results from their study showed that the women who were elected in the reserved seats were more responsive to the needs of women—this was demonstrated in the types of public goods that women gave priority to. This is important because it shatters the argument that the new reservations being proposed will be a sham because it will be the men backing the women who are going to hold the real power. This study suggests that actually, women are more responsive to women’s interests. (What will be interesting to see is what happens when their loyalties conflict, for example, between their female and ethnic identities.)

Changing gender stereotypes through exposure effects

In another fascinating study making use of the same natural experiment conditions, Beaman, Chattopadhyah, Duflo, Pande and Topalova find that exposure to having a female pradhan (chief) affects public opinion of female leaders.

Villagers who have never been required to have a female leader prefer male leaders and perceive hypothetical female leaders as less effective than their male counterparts, when stated performance is identical. Exposure to a female leader does not alter villagers’ taste preference for male leaders. However, it weakens stereotypes about gender roles in the public and domestic spheres and eliminates the negative bias in how female leaders’ effectiveness is perceived among male villagers. Female villagers exhibit less prior bias, but are also less likely to know about or participate in local politics; as a result, their attitudes are largely unaffected. Consistent with our experimental findings, villagers rate their women leaders as less effective when exposed to them for the first, but not second, time. These changes in attitude are electorally meaningful: after 10 years of the quota policy, women are more likely to stand for and win free seats in villages that have been continuously required to have a female chief councillor.

What does this mean with respect to the proposed reservations bill? Essentially, it says that after two rounds of elections, the initial bias that men had towards female political leaders was effectively reduced through exposure. This is critical: it points to a very important and understudied causal mechanism that might help explain why there are not more women in political office.

A Virtuous Circle: the Legacy of Exposure Effects

Again, returning to the case of India and the natural experiment conditions created out of the reservations policy, Rikhil Bhavnani’s study demonstrated two important effects. First, quotas have a lasting impact even after they are removed. Bhavnani compared those Mumbai wards that had reservations for women in 1997 and then had the reservations removed for 2002 with Mumbai wards where there were no reservations for 1997 or 2002. He found that in 2002, the wards that had instituted the reservations elected women for 21.6% of the open seats whereas in those wards that had not had reservations in 1997, only 3.7% of those elected were women.

Second, Bhavnani’s results also reinforce the earlier findings on the importance of exposure. In reservations wards, more new female candidates stepped forward in 2002 as compared to the number of new female candidates in non-reservations wards. Clearly, the quotas had an effect on empowering women to run. (For a less technical summary, see this article from the Times of India.)

These results are also consistent with research that Margit Tavits and I did examining Canadian elections. Although our study had a different focus (the role of gender in party politics), one very interesting and unexpected result emerged from our analysis. We found that in Canada’s federal elections, the more female candidates that had stood for office in a given district in the past 25 years (irrespective of party), the more likely it was that for a political party to nominate a female candidate for that district in the 2004 and 2006 elections. If no female candidates had been put forth in that district in past 25 years, the predicted probability that a candidate would be female was only 18%. However, if 58% of all past candidates had been female (the highest levels in Canada), then the predicted probability that a party would nominate a female candidate in that district goes up to 36%. In other words, we found a “women friendliness” effect of 18% at the district level—the more women that had been put forward as candidates, the more likely we would be to see future female candidates. And this is in a country that has a pretty good track record on gender equality! Quotas, through a mechanism such as India’s proposed reservations policy, could jumpstart this virtuous circle in a significant way at the federal level.

In summary, the new reservations policy for Indian women looks like it has the potential to change the face of politics—literally and figuratively.

* Hats off to fellow Nuffield College alumnus, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for his support of this bill!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:34 am

    Thanks for posting this and congrats on finishing your dissertation!

  2. gayle kimball permalink
    June 7, 2010 4:31 am

    Hi. Has there been any progress beyond the upper house? I couldn’t find any news about the one third law.


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