The feminisation of Indian politics is an exciting phenomenon of our time
Women legislators in India raise economic performance in their constituencies by about 1.8 percentage points per year more than male legislators. When average growth is 7%, this implies that the growth premium associated with female legislators is about 25%Updated: Jan 08, 2019 07:14 IST
Raising the share of women in India’s state legislative assemblies is not only likely to lead to better representation of women’s and children’s concerns in policymaking, it is also likely to lead to higher economic growth. Research suggests that women favour redistributive politics and, thus, have a tolerance of higher taxes. This makes it plausible that, at least in the short to medium term, women politicians are less effective than men at promoting economic growth. Using comprehensive data for 4,265 state assembly constituencies for 1992-2012, we — T Baskaran, B Min, Y Uppal and I — show that the opposite is the case.
Women legislators in India raise economic performance in their constituencies by about 1.8 percentage points per year more than male legislators. When average growth is 7%, this implies that the growth premium associated with female legislators is about 25%.
To understand the mechanisms underlying this striking finding, we explored differences between male and female legislators in corruption, efficiency and motivation, each of which has been associated with economic growth in developing countries. We found evidence in favour of women in each case.
Male legislators are about three times as likely as female legislators to have criminal charges pending against them when they stand for election, and we estimate that this can explain about one fourth of the difference in growth between male and female-led constituencies. We buttress this result with estimates of actual corruption in office, measured as the rate at which women accumulate assets while in office. We find this is 10 percentage points lower per year than among men. These findings line up with experimental evidence that women are more fair, risk-averse and less likely to engage in criminal and other risky behaviour than men.
Since economic infrastructure is an important input to growth in developing countries, we analysed MLA performance in implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the massive federally-funded village road construction programme. We find that male and female politicians are equally likely to negotiate federal projects for road building in their constituencies. However, women are more likely to oversee completion of these projects. The share of incomplete road projects is 22 percentage points lower in female-led constituencies.
Finally, separating the sample into swing and non-swing constituencies, we find that women legislators only perform better than men in non-swing constituencies. In swing constituencies where electoral uncertainty is greater, elected men appear to exert more effort to improve economic growth. One interpretation of this is that men exhibit political opportunism while women display more intrinsic motivation.
Our study overcomes two challenges that arise in answering the question of whether women politicians are good or bad for growth. First, constituency-level data on economic activity are not available, to resolve which we use satellite imagery of night luminosity which previous work shows is a proxy for economic performance, and we checked that it is positively associated with GDP at the state level.
The second challenge for research seeking to estimate causal effects of electing women is that constituencies in which women win elections will tend to be systematically different from those that elect men in ways that may be correlated with economic performance. In other words, differences between male and female legislators may spuriously reflect differences in voter preferences. To address this challenge, we use a previously ratified statistical approach that involves comparing male and female legislators who win against the other gender by a narrow vote margin. In other words, our results emerge from a thought experiment that asks how economic growth in a constituency would change if a male leader were replaced by a female leader, with everything else being the same.
Even if gender differences in tendencies towards corruption are intrinsic, if opportunities for corruption decline with development, it may be that women are especially effective relative to men at producing growth in less developed countries. On the other hand, to the extent that women are intrinsically more motivated in public-facing occupations such as politics, they may outperform men in many environments.
Our findings are relevant to the pending proposal to reserve one third of all federal and state assembly seats for women. They are also relevant outside India. More than a hundred countries have introduced quotas for women in parliament or in party lists in the last two decades. The percentage of women in parliament worldwide has more than doubled in the last 20 years, standing at 22.8% in June 2016. The feminisation of politics is one of the most exciting political phenomenons of our time.
Sonia Bhalotra is professor, University of Essex
The views expressed are personal