Introduction: Women heading governments:
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 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.
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.
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, 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.
- Thus, study 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.
About suffrage to women (allowed to vote):
The right to vote is arguably the most important dimension of participation in public life.
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.
However, Underrepresentation of women in Indian legislatures:
- We have had and have charismatic female leaders like Indira Gandhi, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj and Mamata Banerjee among several others.
- The female representation in the current 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.
- 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.
- As a region, Nordic countries (relating to Scandinavia, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands) are leaders with an average of about 40%. The UK and the US are relative laggards with 32% and 23%, respectively.
- The United States’ current tally, though still moderate, is upheld by a very strong showing by women in the recent congressional elections.
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.
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.
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:
There is a simple fix to the problem.
- The major party constituents 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!
All political parties have to arrive at a consensus and ensure the passage of Women’s Reservation Bill, which calls for reserving 33 percent of seats in Parliament and all state legislative assemblies for women.
Over the last few years, more women have taken up science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) courses and are aspiring to enter the workforce.
However, dropout rates among women are also high particularly around marriage maternity and motherhood as far as employment is concerned. There are options like working from home yet a lot more needs to be done.
There is no, one size fits all strategy as women in rural and urban areas have very different issues therefore there needs to be separate policies for different regions.
If women’s workforce participation in India is realised to its full potential and given India’s demographic dividend, it can easily achieve the target of $5trillion economy.