Weighing in on the efficacy of female leadership

It is necessary to get rid of inherent biases and perceptions about the effectiveness of women in roles of authority

September 24, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

What do Germany, Taiwan and New Zealand have in common? These are all countries that have women heading their governments. And although they are located in three different continents, the three countries seem to have managed the pandemic much better than their neighbours. Much along the same lines, a detailed recent study by researchers in the United States reports that States which have female governors had fewer COVID-19 related deaths , perhaps partly because female governors acted more decisively by issuing earlier stay-at-home orders. The authors of the study conclude that women leaders are more effective than their male counterparts in times of crises. There will be several critics (no need to guess their gender) who will question the reliability of this conclusion by pointing out deficiencies in the data — admittedly somewhat limited — or the econometric rigour of the analysis. Many will also point out that it is dangerous to make sweeping generalisations based on one study.

The point about the danger of making sweeping generalisations is valid. Of course, studies such as these do not establish the superiority of all female leaders over their male counterparts. All female leaders are not necessarily efficient, and there are many men who have proved to be most effective and charismatic leaders. The important takeaway from the recent experience and such studies is the necessity of getting rid of inherent biases and perceptions about female effectiveness in leadership roles.

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India’s gram panchayats

Importantly, female leaders also bring something quite different to the table. In particular, they perform significantly better than men in implementing policies that promote the interests of women. This was demonstrated in another study conducted by Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo and co-author Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, who used the system of mandated reservations of pradhans in gram panchayats to test the effectiveness of female leadership. Their study was made possible by the 1993 amendment of the Indian Constitution, which mandated that all States had to reserve one-third of all positions of pradhan for women. Since villages chosen for the mandated reservations were randomly selected, subsequent differences in investment decisions made by gram panchayats could be attributed to the differences in gender of the pradhans . Chattopadhyay and Duflo concluded that pradhans invested more in rural infrastructure that served better the needs of their own gender. For instance, women pradhans were more likely to invest in providing easy access to drinking water since the collection of drinking water is primarily, if not solely, the responsibility of women.

In addition to the instrumental importance of promoting more space for women in public policy, this is also an important goal from the perspective of gender equality. The right to vote is arguably the most important dimension of participation in public life. There are others. What proportion of women stand for election to the various State and central legislatures? How many are elected? Perhaps more important, how many women occupy important positions in the executive branch of government?

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About suffrage

Independent India can rightly be proud of its achievement in so far as women’s suffrage is concerned. Women were allowed to vote from 1950 onwards and so could participate on an equal footing with men from the first general election of 1951-52. This is in striking contrast to the experience in the so-called “mature democracies” of western Europe and the United States. In the U.S., it took several decades of struggle before women were allowed to vote in 1920. Most countries in Europe also achieved universal suffrage during the inter-war period. Since most able- bodied men went away to the battlefields during the First World War, increasing numbers of women had the opportunity to show that they were adequate substitutes in activities that were earlier the sole preserve of men. This, it is suggested, mitigated the anti-female bias and earned women the right to vote in European countries.

We have had and have charismatic female leaders like Indira Gandhi, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj and Mamata Banerjee among several others. Interestingly, a glaring example of gender stereotyping was the labelling of Indira Gandhi as the “only man in the cabinet”. Apart from these stalwarts, the overall figures are depressing. The female representation in the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre is probably not very far from the typical gender composition in Indian central and State governments. Female members make up only about 10% of the total ministerial strength. The underrepresentation of female Ministers in India is also reflected in the fact that Ms. Banerjee is currently the only female Chief Minister.

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The underrepresentation of women in Indian legislatures is even more striking. For instance, the 2019 election sent the largest number of women to the Lok Sabha. Despite this, women constitute just over 14% of the total strength of the Lok Sabha. This gives us the dismal rank of 143 out of 192 countries for which data are reported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Tiny Rwanda comes out on top with a staggering 60% of seats in its lower house occupied by women.

The women’s Bill languishes

Since women running for elections face numerous challenges, it is essential to create a level-playing field through appropriate legal measures. The establishment of quotas for women is an obvious answer. I have mentioned earlier that mandated reservation for women in gram panchayats was established in all major States since the mid-1990s. Attempts have also been made to extend quotas for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies through a Women’s Reservation Bill. Unfortunately, the fate of this Bill represents a blot on the functioning of the Indian Parliament. The Bill was first presented to the Lok Sabha by the H.D. Deve Gowda government in 1996. Male members from several parties opposed the Bill on various pretexts. Subsequently, both the NDA and United Progressive Alliance governments have reintroduced the Bill in successive Parliaments, but without any success. Although the Rajya Sabha did pass the bill in 2010, the Lok Sabha and the State legislatures are yet to give their approval — despite the 24 years that have passed since it was first presented in the Lok Sabha.


Steps to reducing prejudice

Of course, there is a simple fix to the problem. The major party constituents of the NDA and UPA alliances can sidestep the logjam in Parliament by reserving say a third of party nominations for women. This will surely result in increasing numbers of women in legislatures and subsequently in cabinets. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. There is substantial evidence showing that increased female representation in policy making goes a long way in improving perceptions about female effectiveness in leadership roles. This decreases the bias among voters against women candidates, and results in a subsequent increase in the percentage of female politicians contesting and winning elections. So, such quotas have both a short-term and long-term impact. Indeed, voter perceptions about the efficacy of female leadership may change so drastically in the long run that quotas may no longer be necessary!

Bhaskar Dutta is Professor, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal

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