The Curious Relationship Between Women Voters And Female Leaders
A few months ago, it was election time in my daughter’s school. In the fray for five positions on the council were nine boys and three girls.
“It is a hopeless case. I don’t think there is any point standing for the elections,” confessed my daughter. The boys will win.” “How can you say that? Don’t be defeatist, I am sure you have a good chance’, I urged, trying to instill some confidence in her.
We did some amateur psephology and analyzed the voting patterns. If all the girls voted for the girls, there was a chance. ‘Surely, some of the boys will vote for the girl if she is better for the role.’
“Naah.. the boys will never vote for girls. They will not vote for a girl just because she is a girl.” The dynamics between the girls, who were a minority in the class, was a black box mystery.
While I do believe that one should not vote for a candidate on the basis of gender alone, it is definitely a factor to consider while voting- whether in school elections or national elections.
When the results came out, we learnt that the boys had won all the seats. A group of five boys had campaigned for each other, allocated the positions between them and won decisively. Boys voted for their friends, irrespective of credentials or competencies. It was simple. Girls were more complex, secretive. They did not openly support the girl candidates. No one knew who they voted for. As a result, there were no girls in leadership positions in the class council.
As I set out to cast my vote in one of the largest exercises of adult franchise in the world, I wonder about how men and women vote. While I do believe that one should not vote for a candidate on the basis of gender alone, it is definitely a factor to consider while voting- whether in school elections or national elections.
The results of the 2016 elections in the US clearly showed that many women did not vote for Hilary Clinton. An article in Apolitical , quotes a research published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science in 2017, which showed that gender of the candidate was not the biggest meta- order identity of a candidate. In India, an analysis of the 2014 election data by NES does not show a clear preference for candidates based on gender alone even though parties led by women like AIADMIK and TMC did get a larger share of women’s votes.
One of the biggest factors that reduces the chance of success for women politicians is the widespread bias that men make better leaders
Our choices are always the result of a complex blend of biases, prejudices, emotions and not just logic. Often, we ourselves cannot rationally explain our choices to others. One of the biggest factors that reduces the chance of success for women politicians is the widespread bias that men make better leaders. A study by Vox, a policy and analysis portal, found that a 10% increase in the share of respondents who agree with the statement “Men are better political leaders than women” is associated with a 2.5% decrease in the share of female candidate politicians. Politics has something sleazy, murky and underhand about it and good women cannot survive in such a world. Most girls don’t want to stand for leadership positions in highly competitive school or local elections. There is a belief that family and relationships will suffer if women enter politics. This is reinforced by the fact that most of the high profile female politicians are single, widowed or related to a powerful male. Most women themselves believe that political leadership comes at a great cost.
However, elected women leaders are effective in execution and implementation of policies. There is evidence of significantly higher growth in economic activity in constituencies that elect women.
Research on women politicians in local governments in India found that growth premium for constituencies with women legislators in 25%. A UNICEF paper on women politicians and gender bias in rural India led by economist Esther Duflo among others, found that villages reserved for women leaders have more public goods, and the quality of these goods is at least as high as in non-reserved villages. Moreover, villagers are less likely to pay bribes in villages reserved for women. There is evidence from two Indian states that children in villages headed by female Pradhans do better on two dimensions- drinking water and immunization. Girls in villages reserved for female Pradhans also experience an improvement in school attendance. In West Bengal, female Pradhans invest more in goods directly relevant to the expressed development.
There is evidence from two Indian states that children in villages headed by female Pradhans do better on two dimensions- drinking water and immunization.
Women leaders in India have invested in schemes aimed at women and social welfare. Jayalalitha’s Amma Canteens provided highly subsidized meals to the poor and freed many women from domestic chores. She launched Cradle Baby schemes to reduce female infanticide and gave away Care packages to mothers of new born babies. Mamata Banerjee has launched several schemes in West Bengal like Kanyashree and Rupashree to prevent child marriage and support the higher education of girls. Even if these were populist schemes with an eye on the women vote bank, they did improve the lot of women in the lower income segments.
The success of a few women leaders still does not translate to increased women representation in politics. Less than 8% of the total of 1271 candidates for the 2019 elections are women. The current Indian parliament has only 66 women out of 543 candidates, a lesser percentage than countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh! Even if we do get the 33% reservation for women in Parliament, it will be difficult to get able women candidates to stand for the seats.
There is little support or encouragement from the family for women to stand for public office.
We are caught in a vicious cycle. Unlike the corporate sector or other professions, there is no training or specialized education for political leaders. There is little support or encouragement from the family for women to stand for public office. The absence of an adequate number of successful women politicians further reinforces the existing stereotypes and acts as a deterrent for women to enter the political arena where they can have a powerful influence on policy making.
One silver lining is the increasing participation of women in the electoral process. The percentage of women voters in the current 2019 elections is a record high. In certain states like Uttarakhand, Orissa and West Bengal, the turnout of women is higher than the men. Women are certainly being seen as a critical vote bank, with all parties rushing to propose schemes targeted at women and social welfare.
Whether this increase in the number of women voters translates into an increase in women leaders remains to be seen. A change can be initiated if the women voters can exercise their choice not just in favor of women but for candidates who can provide a healthier, safer, cleaner environment and better social justice. In the long run, hopefully, this can lead to better representation of women in the parliament and a larger number of capable female leaders.
Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are the author’s own.