Political Affirmative Action: Quotas for Women

By Catherine Rampell 

January 12, 2009

Even though most countries allow women to run for office, women are vastly underrepresented in local and national politics around the world.

As a result, some countries have started affirmative action programs to help women get elected — for example, by reserving a certain number of elected positions for them. These policies are intended to encourage more women to run for office, and to acclimate skeptical voters to the idea that women can make good political leaders.

Since economists like to stick their noses into other disciplines (like politics and sociology), some developmental economists have looked into one such program in India. In a recent post on Vox EU, Lori Beaman, Raghab Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova discuss their own research into the effectiveness of the Indian program. They argue that “reservation policies, by giving voters the ability to observe the effectiveness of women leaders, can pave the way for improving women’s access to political office and reducing statistical discrimination”:

There is strong evidence of gender bias against female leaders in India. Villagers who have never been exposed to a female leader due to the reservation policy evaluate the hypothetical leader significantly worse when the leader is randomly described as a woman. However, villagers, particularly men, who had observed at least one female leader as a result of the quota system showed no evidence of bias against female leaders. If anything, male villagers in these areas rated the hypothetical female leader higher than the identical male leader.

Thus, mandated exposure to female leaders does help villagers understand that women can be competent leaders.

The authors say there is at least initially some resistance to these quotas, but, in the end, prejudice against women candidates seems to subside.

I wonder if in some cases, gender-based quotas would reinforce stereotypes that women are not worthy of being elected on their merits. This was a debate I remember having way back in high school, for example.

Some of my high school teachers were disturbed by the fact that so few female students were on the student council. These teachers pushed for a gender quota, in which the freshman and sophomore classes would each elect a “girl representative” and a “boy representative,” rather than two representatives each of any gender combination (which the existing system allowed). Then, once students got to 11th grade, they could elect any gender combination of representatives — although it was assumed that the girl who had represented her class the previous year would benefit from the incumbency advantage, and that the class over all would be more comfortable with female leadership.

Female students generally opposed the proposal. They thought it was demeaning (although, isn’t everything when you’re in high school?). They also argued that girls were ignoring student council openings not because of gender-based oppression, but because they realized student council was, well, completely useless (again, isn’t that always true in high school?). Girls were, after all, healthily represented in other campus extracurricular activities, like the student newspaper and community service groups. Faculty members seemed angry, disappointed and confused when they learned of girls’ opposition to the system; I vividly recall one teacher, a woman, who tearfully berated my history class for “conspiring to keep women down,” or something to that effect.

A few weeks after the proposal was floated, the school had its regularly scheduled student council elections for the sophomore class. This was before the new system went into effect, and, as if conspiring to humiliate their teachers, the class elected two girls for both of its allotted slots. The smarmy ironists among us (again, weren’t we all in high school?) noted that, had that new system been in place, it would have actually robbed one girl of her elected position. I think the amendment was abandoned shortly thereafter.

Of course, election to a liberal American high school’s student council and election to public office in a developing country carry different levels of import and authority. Perhaps what was so objectionable to us as high school girls was the paltriness of the position for which we were being affirmatively acted upon.

Going back to the “student councils are universally worthless” point, maybe it matters how prestigious the quota position is. Demonstrating competence after being the beneficiary of affirmative action in an “elite” male-dominated field (say, the biology department at a top research university) may be different from demonstrating competence after being the beneficiary of affirmative action in a less “elite” or less-skilled male-dominated field (say, truck driving). I wonder if there has been any research on whether the long-term success of gender-based affirmative action programs in developing countries differs based on the prestige of the political offices those programs target.

 Found in the New York Times

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