Weighing in on the efficacy of female leadership

New Delhi: What do Germany, Taiwan and New Zealand have in common? These are all countries where women are leading their governments. And although they are located on three different continents, all three countries seem to have managed the pandemic better than their neighbors. Along the same lines, a recent detailed study by researchers in the United States reported that states with female governors had a lower number of COVID-19-related deaths, perhaps partly because female governors Acted more decisively by issuing earlier orders to stay at home. The authors of the study conclude that women leaders are more effective than their male counterparts during times of crisis. There will be many critics (no need to guess their gender) who will question the credibility of this conclusion by pointing out shortcomings in the data – admittedly somewhat limited – or the econometric rigor of the analysis. Many would also say that it is dangerous to make broad generalizations based on one study.

The point about the danger of making broad generalizations is a valid one. Of course, such studies do not establish the superiority of all female leaders over their male counterparts. Not all women leaders are necessarily skilled, and there are many men who have proven to be the most effective and charismatic leaders. Recent experience and important findings from studies like this one point to the need to get rid of implicit biases and assumptions about female effectiveness in leadership roles.

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Village Panchayats of India
Importantly, women leaders also bring something different to the table. In particular, they do significantly better than men in implementing policies that promote women’s interests. This was demonstrated in another study by Nobel laureate Esther Duflo and co-author Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, who used a system of mandatory reservation of heads in village panchayats to test the effectiveness of female leadership. Her study was made possible by a 1993 amendment to the Indian Constitution, which required all states to reserve one-third of all offices of head of state for women. Since the villages selected for mandatory reservation were randomly selected, subsequent differences in investment decisions made by gram panchayats can be attributed to differences in the gender of the heads. Chattopadhyay and Duflo concluded that princes invested more in rural infrastructure that better met the needs of their own gender. For example, women chiefs were more likely to invest in providing easy access to drinking water because the collection of drinking water is not primarily the responsibility of women.

In addition to being instrumental in promoting more space for women in public policy, it is also an important goal from the point of view of gender equality. The right to vote is arguably the most important dimension of participation in public life. There are others. What is the proportion of women in the elections to various state and central assemblies? How many are elected? Perhaps more important, how many women hold important positions in the executive branch of government?

About Franchise
Independent India can be proud of its achievement as far as women’s suffrage is concerned. Women had been allowed to vote since 1950 and could therefore participate on an equal footing with men from the first general election of 1951–52. This contrasts with the experience of so-called “mature democracies” in Western Europe and the United States. It took decades of struggle in America before women were allowed to vote in the 1920s. Most countries in Europe also achieved universal suffrage during the inter-war period. Since most able-bodied men had gone off to the battlefield during World War I, increasing numbers of women had the opportunity to show that they had ample choice in activities that had previously been the sole preserve of men. This, it has been suggested, reduced anti-feminist prejudice and earned women the right to vote in European countries.

We have had and have many other charismatic women leaders like Indira Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj and Mamata Banerjee. Interestingly, a glaring example of gender stereotyping was the labeling of Indira Gandhi as “the only person in the cabinet”. Apart from these giants, the overall figures are dismal. Women representation in the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Center is perhaps not far from the typical gender structure in Indian central and state governments. Women members make up about 10% of the total ministerial strength. The low representation of women ministers in India is also reflected in the fact that Ms. Banerjee is currently the only woman chief minister.

The low representation of women in Indian legislatures is even more shocking. For example, 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 a dismal rank of 143 out of 192 countries for which data is reported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Tiny Rwanda tops the list with 60% of the seats in its lower house occupied by women.

women’s bill is languishing
Since women contesting elections face many challenges, it is necessary to create a level playing field through suitable legal measures. Establishing quotas for women is an obvious answer. I mentioned earlier that mandatory reservation for women in village panchayats was instituted in all major states since the mid-1990s. There has also been an attempt to increase the quota for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures through the Women’s Reservation Bill. Unfortunately, the fate of this bill represents a blot on the functioning of the Indian Parliament. Bill was shot in HD for the first time. was introduced in the Lok Sabha by Deve Gowda Govt in 1996. Male members of several parties opposed the Bill on various pretexts. Thereafter, both the NDA and the United Progressive Alliance governments re-introduced the bill in successive parliaments, but with no success. Though the Rajya Sabha passed the bill in 2010, the Lok Sabha and state legislatures are yet to give their assent, even after 24 years have passed since it was first introduced in the Lok Sabha.

ways to reduce prejudice
Of course, there is a simple solution to the problem. Major party constituents of the NDA and UPA alliance may break the impasse in Parliament by reserving one-third of party nominations for women. This would certainly lead to an increase in the number of women in legislatures and subsequently in cabinets. Its importance cannot be underestimated. There is considerable evidence that increasing female representation in policy making goes a long way in improving perceptions about female effectiveness in leadership roles. This reduces prejudice among voters against female candidates, and results in a subsequent increase in the percentage of female politicians contesting and winning elections. Therefore, such quotas have both short-term and long-term effects. In fact, voters’ perception of women’s leadership potential may change so rapidly in the long term that quotas may no longer be needed!

Bhaskar Dutta is a professor at Ashoka University. Views expressed are personal