When womenÕs electoral representation matters


MORE than 1.3 million Indian women serve as elected representatives in government.1 This is primarily driven by the Constitutionally mandated system of electoral reservation requiring at least one-third of local elected positions be reserved for women, with twenty of twenty-nine states having chosen to raise this to one-half of local elected positions. This represents the most extensive gender quota system in the world, and India joins more than 130 other countries that have institutionalized protections for womenÕs political representation through some form of quota or reservation policy. These policies were motivated by the continued underrepresentation of women in elected office, even when women had achieved parity of participation as citizens.

Today, women comprise less than 25% of legislators across the world. This severe under-representation of women is concerning in itself but also because it suggests that womenÕs unique interests and distinct preferences may not receive fair representation in political bodies. WomenÕs lack of presence in these institutions may lead to policies that fail to address womenÕs needs and wants and may inhibit normative and social change. The institutionalization of quotas and reservations, therefore, seeks to rectify this under-representation of women in politics by increasing womenÕs presence in political bodies – what political scientists often refer to as descriptive representation or the numerical representation of specific groups.

By increasing the presence of women, quotas and reservations aim to enable the greater representation of womenÕs voices and demands in politics – what political scientists often refer to as substantive representation or the representation of a specific groupÕs interests by political actors – as women are assumed better positioned to represent the interests of women. Even more, such policies have been lauded as having the potential to spill over into normative and social change through the empowerment of women and the demonstration of womenÕs capacity as political leaders. We can, therefore, evaluate the efficacy of these policies, and particularly IndiaÕs policy of reserving seats in local politics for women, in augmenting the physical representation of women in political bodies, in changing the nature of policymaking to align more evenly with womenÕs demands, and in shifting broader attitudes and norms around womenÕs political participation.



In the first domain, research has highlighted that once women command political office, they set in motion an acceleration effect that leads to even greater political representation. Evidence from municipal elections in Mumbai shows that after being elected under reservations, women often stay in political office even after the reservation has been removed.2 Similar patterns attain for state legislative assembly members in India.3 More recent work suggests that there is even potential for womenÕs upward electoral progression following their initial election through a reserved seat.4 There is additional evidence that womenÕs electoral representation begets the political participation of female citizens, with several studies reporting increases to womenÕs political participation following the election of a female leader in local government.5 This evidence aligns with findings from around the globe showing that quota and reservation policies largely succeed in accomplishing their principal goal of increasing womenÕs descriptive representation in political institutions, and such results may even be suggestive of a change in the treatment of women as political leaders given the acceleration of womenÕs electoral success even after the removal of quotas.



But does the electoral representation of women matter for politics, policy, and the lives of women? Evidence largely from local governments in India shows that policies shift closer to the preferences expressed by women, both with respect to ŌgenderÕ issues and more general service provision when women are elected as the chairperson of the local assembly. In areas more explicitly geared towards protections for women, gender reservations have been shown to increase womenÕs property ownership and property rights in rural villages6 and increase the number of claims filed regarding gender-based violence.7 When looking at state legislative assemblies, female state legislators in India are shown to be more supportive of Ōfemale-friendlyÕ laws, including the Hindu Succession Act, which protects womenÕs property rights.8

These findings from India align with global studies of the consequences of womenÕs electoral representation, which show that greater institutionalized protections for women are likely only when women are represented in politics but may also require a critical mass of women to organize to demand such protections.9 While this suggests that womenÕs electoral representation is a critical step in ensuring greater protections for women more broadly, it may not be sufficient if unmet by organized political action of female citizens.



Despite nearly three decades of reservations for women in local political office, everyday Indian women remain substantially less present in political institutions, particularly outside of electoral politics, than their male counterparts.10 The observed impacts of womenÕs descriptive representation for their substantive representation in India may, therefore, represent only the beginning of the potential impacts of reservation policies. If women are able to mobilize in support of female elected representatives, we may see an even greater response to their demands. Recent upswings in womenÕs turnout on election days bear the promise of such cascading effects. More research is needed to understand the conditions under which women elected representatives are best able to reflect the demands of women as a group and what role female citizensÕ political participation plays in this process.



Through the greater presence of women in deliberative and representative political bodies, reservations have additionally been shown to improve the provision of public goods, particularly public goods that disproportionately benefit women and children and have historically been under-provided, such as toilets, water, fuel, and healthcare. Women leaders are significantly more likely to invest in public goods both as a reflection of their preferences and in response to their socialized role as caretakers. Female village leaders in India improved the provision of water and roads in line with the preferences of the women in their communities11, and female MLAs invested more in public health and education12 (similar evidence has been found when looking across the globe).13

 While women have been shown to want improved provision of public goods, broader societal expectations also enable and incentivize elected women representatives to deliver public goods. There is strategic value in leveraging womenÕs political participation for broader aims, potentially at the cost of womenÕs agency and true substantive representation. In my experience working with womenÕs groups across India, I have noted that many groups see their political responsibility as delivering development to their communities. While women, of course, desire improved development, there has also been an acknowledgment that such mobilization is less threatening to the men who hold power. On occasion, women have shared a desire to instead redress gender inequalities but recounted stories of pushback from elected officials and other political powerholders. For example, in one village, a group of women shared that they had approached the local government about a domestic violence case, stating that they would file a petition with the local courts. Instead, they were encouraged to handle the dispute informally, with the elected official mediating.



Since social norms privilege womenÕs position as caretakers and since women have stronger preferences for public goods and weaker ties to the structures needed to deliver more particularistic goods, womenÕs political participation may be condoned only if it is not seen as threatening to these interests of those who hold political power. Survey data with voters in Tunisia, however, shows that women are punished for investing in gender-based issues and rewarded substantially more for investing in public services more broadly.14 As a result, there is potential for womenÕs electoral representation to become coopted such that women are more responsive to the incentives and demands of normative expectations as opposed to their independent desires.

 Evidence of the impact of womenÕs electoral representation on gender norms is, in fact, quite mixed. Studies of rural communities in India demonstrate that exposure to female elected officials can increase perceptions of womenÕs capacity as political leaders, suggesting the potential for normative change.15 However, studies elsewhere have found the opposite.16 And alongside these potential attitudinal shifts, others have shown that female elected politicians in India face substantial backlash, particularly when they advocate for the interests of women.17



Despite all of the positive gains to womenÕs descriptive and substantive representation in India, several questions remain as to whether the worldÕs largest quota policy has led to meaningful normative and social change. First, this policy has failed to translate into entrenched female representation in other political areas, and womenÕs political representation outside of reserved seats lags much of the rest of the world. In India, there are no political reservations or quotas for women outside of local branches of government. As a result, at present, only 14% of Members of Parliament and 7% of Members of Legislative Assemblies are women. WomenÕs representation in the national Parliament has improved only marginally over the past six decades and remains markedly below that of Scheduled Castes18 despite occupying a greater population share. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, India ranks 148 out of 192 countries in terms of womenÕs representation in parliaments.

Second, more than 60% of Indian residents in 2014 reported the belief that men make better political leaders than women.19 This suggests a series of open questions on how to achieve political gender equality, the answers to which will help us understand whether the system of electoral reservations for women in India has succeeded in long-term political change and how womenÕs true substantive representation can be achieved.



When will women have proportionate levels of electoral representation absent institutional protections? The biggest challenge for womenÕs sustained political inclusion is in electorally entrenching womenÕs political power. In some regards, we would expect such electoral entrenchment to come easier in the Indian context, given the Constitutional requirement of reservations. The evidence referenced above suggests that this institution has enabled womenÕs sustained political parti-cipation even with low levels of political participation by women more broadly.20 However, womenÕs representation in electoral institutions without reservations remains markedly low and, despite the greater likelihood of reelection post-reservation, my own analysis of data from several states suggests that fewer than 10% of unreserved seats in local governments are won by women. The inability of women to garner political presence outside of those positions explicitly reserved for them demonstrates the systemic challenges to the entrenchment of womenÕs political position.

 Such political entrenchment requires womenÕs political inclusion in all institutions of political decision-making and authority. Women remain relatively absent in both party leadership and party machinery in India.21 They comprise less than one-third of IAS officers and are generally under-represented in authority positions in the bureaucracy.22 And, as noted previously, they remain significantly under-represented in both state legislatures and national Parliament. Reservations, therefore, have not led to a widespread cascade of women in all political spaces. Understanding and addressing the constraints to women in these different domains poses a first challenge to rectifying their under-representation. Further, much more evidence is needed to understand how these systems and how womenÕs representation in each of these systems interact to either hinder or advance womenÕs substantive representation.



For example, does increased representation of women in bureaucratic positions facilitate women politiciansÕ performance and ability to execute on their and their groupÕs interest? Additionally, in the most recent Uttar Pradesh state elections, the Congress party pledged to voluntarily reserve 40% of tickets for women. Will such behaviour by parties enable greater electoral representation of women and even change normative beliefs?

 Second, when will ingrained norms of womenÕs lesser capacity in politics be overturned, and when will women be seen as equally competent political leaders as their male counterparts? Alongside persistent beliefs of womenÕs lesser ability as political leaders lie concerns with the ability of the institution of reservations to ensure that the most qualified women end up as political representatives. Explicit concerns about the quality of women elected representatives have led several states, including Haryana and Rajasthan, to enact a minimum education requirement for political candidacy. While such policies may improve the quality of elected officials if education is a good proxy for quality, they also pose the potential to perpetuate politics as an elite institution and may disproportionately limit womenÕs candidacy given historical gender inequalities in educational attainment. Further research is needed to understand whether amendments to quota and reservation policies help or hurt womenÕs substantive representation in electoral politics.



Such policies may additionally allow us to understand whether gender-biased attitudes towards political leadership are rooted in long-standing inequalities in other domains, such as access to education, or whether they are rooted in more deep-seated psychological beliefs and broader power structures tying women to the household. If the former, then addressing gender inequalities outside of the realm of politics is likely to have important impacts on womenÕs ability to navigate political systems, and, in the interim, policies can be designed to remedy these inequalities for particular women. If the latter, greater thought about how to redress the entire system of gender inequality under patriarchal norms and institutions will be critical to fostering true normative change.

In my own research, I have observed that the patriarchal structures that tie women to their households also shape womenÕs political lives. For many women, the household is the centre of their political network and the core of their political decision-making. So long as womenÕs political lives are rooted in their household – an institution dominated by men under patriarchy – their distinct interests are likely to play second fiddle. Change, both with respect to womenÕs political representation and in perceptions of their capacity, occurs instead when women band together and demonstrate the power of their voice. These patterns were evident through a study of womenÕs Self-Help Groups in Madhya Pradesh: group meetings led to solidarity, which in turn led to collective mobilization and, ultimately, the greater representation of womenÕs demands.



Finally, under what conditions are women elected representatives able to attain political influence and act as agents of their and their female constituentÕs interests? Many have questioned whether quotas and reservations have actually enabled womenÕs political leadership, instead suggesting that male political elites often capture these reserved seats through proxyism.23 If seats intended for female elected officials are co-opted by men, it is unlikely that descriptive representation will beget any meaningful representation of womenÕs interests. The existence of proxy-ism is well documented in journalistic accounts of local politics in India, but we lack systematic evidence of the existence and scale of this practice. Documenting both the prevalence of womenÕs co-optation from male family members and male-dominated partisan networks more broadly and the mechanisms to ensure womenÕs agency will be of critical importance in understanding the pathways to womenÕs substantive representation.



Despite its best intentions, democracy often elevates some voices above others. The systematic under-representation of womenÕs voices can be seen throughout history and persists worldwide. Social and structural forces have united to generate a political system where womenÕs limited electoral representation is but one outcome. In seeking to understand the under-representation of women in politics and the pathways to the true representation of womenÕs interests and demands, a deeper understanding of the broader social and political system is necessary. Structural change is most likely when womenÕs inclusion is ensured in all institutions and at all levels. While policies in one domain have shown great potential for forward movement, much more is possible if the issue of political gender equality and empowerment is seen as a multi-dimensional problem. Ensuring womenÕs engagement and representation in all political institutions – electoral institutions, the bureaucracy, party structures, and as citizens – and creating incentivizes for all political actors to value womenÕs voices bears the greatest promise at true social change.



1. Rahul Bhatnagar, ŌTake Five: ŅElected Women Representatives Are Key Agents for Transformational Economic, Environmental and Social Change in IndiaÓ,Õ 2019. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2019/7/take-five-rahul-bhatnagar-india

2. Rikhil R. Bhavnani, ŌDo Electoral Quotas Work After They Are Withdrawn? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in IndiaÕ, American Political Science Review 103(1), 2009, pp. 23-35.

3. Sonia Bhalotra, Irma Clots Figueras, and Lakshmi Iyer, ŌPathbreakers? WomenÕs Electoral Success and Future Political ParticipationÕ, The Economic Journal 128(613), 2018, pp. 1844-1878.

4. Tanushree Goyal, ŌLocal Female Representation as a Pathway to Power: A Natural Experiment in IndiaÕ, available at SSRN 3590118, 2020. Varun Karekurve-Ramachandra and Alexander Lee, ŌCan Gender Quotas Improve Public Service Provision? Evidence from Indian Local GovernmentÕ, 2020.

5. Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo, ŌWomen as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in IndiaÕ, Econometrica 72(5), 2004, pp. 1409-1443.

6. Rachel E. BrulŽ, ŌReform, Representation, and Resistance: The Politics of Property RightsÕ EnforcementÕ, The Journal of Politics 82(4), 2020, pp. 1390-1405.

7. Lakshmi Iyer et al., ŌThe Power of Political Voice: WomenÕs Political Representation and Crime in IndiaÕ, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4(4), 2012, pp. 165-93.

8. Irma Clots-Figueras, ŌWomen in Politics: Evidence from the Indian StatesÕ, Journal of Public Economics 95(7-8), 2011, pp. 664-690.

9. Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon, The Logics of Gender Justice: State Action on WomenÕs Rights Around the World. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

10. Soledad Artiz Prillaman, ŌStrength in Numbers: How WomenÕs Groups Close IndiaÕs Political Gender GapÕ, American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).

11. Chattopadhyay and Duflo, op. cit., 2004.

12. Clots-Figueras, op. cit., 2011.

13. Amanda Clayton and PŠr Zetterberg, ŌQuota Shocks: Electoral Gender Quotas and Government Spending Priorities WorldwideÕ, The Journal of Politics 80(3), 2018, pp. 916-932.

14. Alexandra Domike Blackman and Marlette Jackson, ŌGender Stereotypes, Political Leadership, and Voting Behaviour in TunisiaÕ, Political Behavior, 2019, pp. 1-30.

15. Lori Beaman, et al., ŌPowerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?Õ The Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(4), 2009, pp. 1497-1540.

16. Amanda Clayton, ŌElectoral Gender Quotas and Attitudes Toward Traditional Leaders: A Policy Experiment in LesothoÕ, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 33(4), 2014, pp. 1007-1026.

17. BrulŽ, op. cit., 2020.

18. Scheduled Caste is an official designation in India that identifies a group of castes that have been historically marginalized in social, economic, and political institutions.

19. R. Inglehart, C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen, et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: Round Six – Country-Pooled Datafile Version. https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV6.jsp. JD Systems Institute, Madrid.

20. Outside of election days, women participate in politics at roughly one-third the rate of men.

21. Saad Gulzar, et al., ŌWho Becomes a Party Worker?Õ Working paper 2020; Goyal, op. cit., 2020.

22. Bhumi Purohit, ŌBureaucratic Resistance Against Female Politicians: Evidence from Telangana, India.Õ Working paper.

23. Radu Ban and Vijayendra Rao, ŌTokenism or Agency? The Impact of WomenÕs Reservations on Village Democracies in South IndiaÕ, Economic Development and Cultural Change 56(3), 2008, pp. 501-530.