Path-Breakers: How Does Women’s Political Participation Respond to Electoral Success?

by Sonia Bhalotra, Irma Clots-Figueras & Lakshmi Iyer

Overview — Many explanations have been put forward to explain the gender gap in executive positions in finance, business, and politics. However, scholars know surprisingly little about the effects of exposure to women who are competitively selected into leadership positions. Focusing on India, the world's largest democracy, the authors obtained data on elections to state legislative assemblies in 3,473 constituencies from the Election Commission of India over the period 1980-2007 in which most states had six elections. They used data for the 16 major states of India which account for over 95 percent of the total population. The authors identified a large and significant increase in the subsequent share of women candidates fielded by major parties in Indian state elections. The increase arises mainly from an increased propensity for previous candidates to run for re-election, rather than the entry of new women candidates. Given that a substantial fraction of incumbents in Indian state elections do not re-run and female incumbents overall are less likely to re-run than male incumbents, this is an important result. There is, however, no significant increase in the probability that a woman wins the next election. Consistent with this, the estimated impact on women's candidacy fades over time although a significant impact persists through two elections, which is a period of 10 years. Overall, this study makes clear that it is important to identify the extent to which a spontaneous dynamic operates in launching women into the political sphere when quotas are absent. Key concepts include:

  • In India, parties appear willing to change their prior opinion of the viability of women candidates after observing a woman win an election.
  • The electoral victory of a woman results in a large and significant increase of 9.2 percentage points in the fraction of female candidates fielded by major parties in subsequent elections in the same constituency.
  • The increase in women's candidacy is driven primarily by the increased propensity of prior candidates to contest again. There is no significant increase in the entry of new female candidates.
  • Further economic, institutional or policy incentives are needed to stimulate entry of new women into the political arena and more widespread participation of women as voters.

Author Abstract

This paper analyzes the effect of a woman's electoral victory on women's subsequent political participation. Using the regression discontinuity afforded by close elections between women and men in India's state elections, we find that a woman winning office leads to a large and significant increase in the share of female candidates from major political parties in the subsequent election. This stems mainly from an increased probability that previous women candidates contest again, an important margin in India where a substantial number of incumbents do not contest reelection. There is no significant entry of new female candidates, no change in female or male voter turnout, and no spillover effects to neighboring areas. Further analysis points to a reduction in party bias against women candidates as the main mechanism driving the observed increase in women's candidacy.

Paper Information