Friday, September 20, 2013

Heroes and Sheroes - Inspiring Women's Political Participation

All of us have heroes. People we’ve seen succeed; whom we want to emulate. When we have something in common with those heroes, it’s even more inspiring: that success feels even more tangible because, “if they can do it, so can I!”

But female political heroes are unfortunately too difficult to come by. Women represent over half of the population in most countries. And when women are involved in policy-making, there are often better education, health, and economic mobility outcomes for the whole society. Yet women make up only 11% of elected political office in India, 18% in the US, and 22% in the UK and China! Getting a few more women---even by quotas---should inspire others to participate too, right?

At today’s WAPPP Seminar, Lakshmi Iyer of Harvard Business School presented her research on “Path Breakers: How Does Women’s Political Participation Respond to Electoral Success?” Professor Iyer and her colleagues look at state level elections in India to see whether simply having women candidates run and succeed affects whether more women will try to run in the future. They crunch a lot of interesting data, and conclude that there is, in fact, an increase in the number of women who run as candidates after they see other women succeed.

But in looking at some of the details, they also find that most of this increase is simply because earlier female candidates run again (rather than new women necessarily getting inspired), and that there’s no impact on whether more women will vote.

If you want to increase and sustain the number of women in higher elected office, simply encouraging quotas---a requirement on the number of women in an elected body---may not be the best way. In India, the nature of democracy may be a stranger impediment: parties tend to select candidates not based on their aptitude or ideology, but by their "winnability"---which often includes association or family connections. Leaving the process to itself, according to Professor Iyer, may not change the situation for generations.

Yet the effect of their presence---even if enforced by quotas---on policy-making may be an important factor. If the mere presence a woman on a governing body can have a tangible influence on how that organization functions and what it does, it might well be worth it, regardless of how she got there.

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