Around the world, women are still largely underrepresented in politics. Can political affirmative action for women reduce this gender bias?
While women have the legal right to equal participation in politics in almost every country around the world, they remain vastly underrepresented in local and national politics (see article on women’s share in parliaments on this blog).
The highest share of female parliamentarians can be found in the Nordic countries. In this region, the proportion varies around 40%. This is, however, still quite far away from 50%, which would imply a completely egalitarian representation of women and men in politics. The lowest share can be found in the Arab States (under 10%).
Many countries around the world have introduced some sort of affirmative action policies for women in public office, such as gender mainstreaming programs for example. However, even in developed countries, women’s influence in national politics remains rather low, as women are far from making up half of the parliamentarians. In France, for example, to date there are only 18% of women in the national assembly.
Several economists ask today: Can gender quotas in parliaments increase women’s participation in politics?
When explaining her innovative work on the fight against poverty, Esther Duflo, Professor of Economics at MIT and first president of the Chair “Knowledge against poverty” («Savoirs contre pauvreté» ) at the College de France, clearly speaks in favor of gender quotas in politics.
“It is clear that there are many prejudices against women, but these perceptions change when political quotas impose re-thinking: people find that female politicians are less corrupt and invest more in public goods. In India, in every election, one third of the villages must elect a woman mayor, by rotation. People have a limited choice in the first election, but we observe that they become more likely to elect a woman in the following elections even when they are not constrained. This implies that they have more ambitions for their daughters and women have more ambition for themselves.
I therefore support quotas. For ten years I’ve been working on this issue and I’m sure it’s a good thing. People are stuck in their prejudices, they do not know, do not imagine that women can be good leaders. In the light of experience, I can see that the same discourse is not perceived in an identical way if uttered by a man or a woman. But this bias disappears after five years of experimentation. It is therefore necessary to force people to experience it.”
Together with her colleagues Lori Beaman, Raghab Chattopadhyay, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova, Esther Duflo states furthermore :
“One reason to expect quotas to have a long-term impact on the electoral outcomes for women is that they force voters to observe women in political leadership positions. If women, on average, perform better than anticipated by voters, then voters will be more willing to elect women candidates in future elections, even in the absence of quotas.
Work in social psychology suggests that group stereotypes affect individual perceptions of the effectiveness of women as leaders. In the field of politics, it would suggest that pre-existing social norms that associate leadership with men may make it harder for women to enter the political arena. The lack of exposure to female leaders would, in turn, perpetuate biased perceptions of female leader effectiveness. Regardless of competence, if women leaders are presumed to be ineffective, their chance of successfully participating in politics is slim.
The experience in India shows that there is already evidence that female leaders make different policy choices once in office, specifically ones that better reflect women’s preferences.
Gender quotas in politics, 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.”
Abhijit V. Banerjee et Esther Duflo – Repenser la pauvreté, aux éditions du Seuil.
Related articles on this blog: