The recent election of Kamala Harris as the first woman vice president of America has ignited the aspirations of countless women in politics globally. However, in India, climbing the ladder of political leadership for women remains an inequitable feat. While reservations and active efforts to increase diversity have improved women’s participation in politics, much of the day-to-day functioning of Indian politics, even grassroots governance, remains a man’s game.
At the national level, only 14% of Members of Parliament in India are women, with roughly half of them coming from only four states. At the state level, the figure is even lower: women make up only 9% of the elected candidates of State Legislative Assemblies. Globally, India ranks in the bottom quartile when it comes to women’s representation in Parliament, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 that ranked India 122 out of 153 countries.
Women’s representation in grassroots institutions in India, on the other hand, is relatively better. Reservations for women brought in by the 73rd constitutional amendment save one-third of leadership positions in village-level governance for women. However, this increased representation has failed to trickle upwards and mask the barriers that women face in getting elected or while in office.
How do women get elected?
Evidence suggests that female candidates in India differ from male candidates in a number of ways. First, women identified as suitable candidates for office are more likely to come from political or wealthy families, compared to male candidates. At the local level, a frequent path to panchayat leadership for women is belonging to political families who are unable to serve due to a reserved seat. This pattern is also reflected at the national level, where even without reservations, 42% of female MPs come from political families compared to 15% of male candidates.
This could be on account of several reasons. For one, the campaign expenses and time required to run for office tend to favor more well-off families. The selection of female candidates is also practical: female candidates are assumed to have an added sense of electability when their family members are popularly known. Additionally, selecting women from political families or those who benefit from the current status quo can be seen as less risky as they are more likely to tow the party line and affect less change to existing political and governance systems.
Second, female candidates unlike male candidates are much more likely to run in reserved seats than general seats. At the national level, women serve in higher proportions in SC/ST reserved seats compared to general-candidate seats. At the panchayat level, reservations for women can unintentionally make it difficult for women to contest seats for general candidates, which have come to be seen as seats for men.
Third, aspirations of political careers are also notably different between men and women. In one study of panchayat presidents in Karnataka, less than 3% of female candidates contested for a second term. For those considering running again, getting support from their parties to run for general seats is notably rare. At the state level, 34% of women do not run for re-election compared to 28% of men. Studies also reveal a ‘backlash effect’ in states with higher gender bias where the election of women leads fewer women to run in future cycles.
Barriers to leadership stem from barriers to political participation
Much of the absence of women in political leadership stems from gender gaps in overall political participation. While female voter turnout has equalized that of men in the recent past – and even surpassed it in some states – women’s political involvement in non-electoral activities still lags behind. Recent research has highlighted that women are less involved than men in key political activities, including participation in campaigns and contacts with public officials.
For female candidates who decide to contest for election, they face an uphill battle. Women candidates have less education and experience, on average, compared to male candidates. While the evidence is mixed, their roles at the local level are often nominal and many daily functions revert to their husbands or another close male authority.
There are also different societal expectations of male versus female political leaders. Some research has shown that people can be less satisfied with female leaders even though they are shown to produce equal or greater results. Women who are elected have also expressed difficulties with working in largely male-dominated environments. For many women, housework demands also add to their inability to focus entirely on political agendas.
Social and economic benefits of female leadership
The gender gap in election contestants comes in contrast to the growing body of literature highlighting the benefits of female leadership. Evidence has shown that female leaders yield improved provision of public goods in India and greater addressal of women’s issues, such as in health, education, and violence against women.
These results align with the larger discourse on female leadership, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent research shows that countries with female-headed governments – Germany, New Zealand, and Taiwan, for example – have arguably managed the pandemic better. In the US too, research suggests that states with female governors had fewer Covid-19-related deaths. Yet, despite yielding improved outcomes, research finds that women are being left out of decision making at all levels of Covid-19 response structures.
An often-ignored quality of female leaders, which may also explain their more empathetic Covid-19 response, is their ‘soft skills’. Women tend to outperform men in both leadership and interaction, excelling in areas like coaching others, facilitating change, and building trusting relationships.
Finally, there is general consensus that local-level reservations have increased bargaining power and improved the situation of women overall in India. This includes improving political participation: women have been shown to speak up more in village meetings when the panchayat president is female. This further strengthens the case of improving women’s political participation and leadership.
Is India ready for change?
It is not as though India is not ready for gender equality. In a recent international opinion survey, a large majority (76%) of respondents in India think the government “should do more” to promote gender equality. Surprisingly, there was little difference between male and female responses. Fourty-four per cent of respondents believed that the main reason for gender inequality in India was “religion and culture that do not treat women and men as equals.” Interestingly, 49% of respondents wanted the government to “reform laws to promote equality between women and men and end discrimination against women.”
As the UN’s upcoming Generation Equality Forum aims focus on feminist movements and leadership as an action agenda, perhaps it is time that longstanding promises from political parties to pass the decades-in-waiting Women’s Reservation Bill be met. Yet another proposal that begs consideration is a proposed 50/50 split of Chief Minister positions. These positions may appear radical, but if evidence on India’s reservation system for women in local panchayats is considered, then it may require affirmative action to give women the space they deserve in Indian policy making.
Soumya Kapoor Mehta is the Head and Steven Walker is a Consultant at the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE) an initiative of LEAD at Krea University. All views expressed in this article are personal.