Can Exposure to Female Leaders Reduce Gender Bias?

As of 2008, women accounted for only 18.4% of parliamentarians worldwide, and only thirteen countries has a woman at the head of their government.1 While these numbers strongly differ between regions such as the Nordic countries and the Middle East, for instance, around the world countries need to participate in ways to involve more females can participate legitimately in government.In most countries women can partake in the political process by voting and supporting candidates, and they can run for office. But the stigma surrounding female leadership often deters women from doing so.  

Rwanda is a hallmark case. Two decades after a devastating genocide, nearly 70% of Rwanda’s population was women.With the country’s economic, social, and political institutions eliminated, women were accountable for effectively rebuilding the state of Rwanda. Now, the Rwandan government is 64% female, higher than anywhere else in the world. Half the Supreme Court justices are women, and women can now inherit property and pass citizenship on to their children.4

This level of progress in Rwanda can possibly be attributed to a reservation law, requiring the parliament of the country to be at least 30% female. Case studies are contentious about the effectiveness of reservation laws – some assert that the quotas make the voting population more resistant to female leaders, while others see it as a beneficial requirement.

MIT scholar Professor Esther Duflo set out to determine how effective these reservation requirements were at the local level by studying their manifestation in societies of India. Duflo is a French economist, and has researched extensively on female leadership.

Duflo studied the West Bengal state of India, an area affected by the implementation of India’s reservation laws in 1993 to address the gender disparity in female political leadership. The constitutional amendment called for gender quotas at each of the three levels of local government. Before that, approximately 10% of women in national and state governments were women.5

Each village of West Bengal consists of a village council, with a set number of elected councilors. Each village council selects a chief councilor, or pradhan. In this state of India, reservation laws require that one-third of all councilor positions and ⅓ of all pradhan positions are reserved for women.6

STUDY 1 – Women as Policymakers

In this study with her cohort Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Duflo wished to determine the possible effects on reservation policies in a representative democracy, such as the village councils seen in the states of India. To conduct the study, Duflo and Chattopadhyay collected data from two different locations: Birbhum in West Bengal, and Udaipur in Rajasthan. Agricultural activities dominate the economy, with rice as the area’s main crop. It has a population of approximately 2.56 million, and is known to have a relatively welly functioning local government system.7

In Birbhum, the researchers conducted a survey of all members of the village council, or the Gram Panchayat (GP). First they asked questions about the representatives’ general background, their political experience, their political ambitions, and the activities of the GP since their election to the council. Next, Duflo and Chattopadhyay completed a survey of three other villages in the GP to determine what infrastructural items had been repaired since the beginning of the councilors’ terms.8

They completed the same exercise in 100 randomly chosen small areas of Udaipur. Udaipur has a different dynamic than Birbhum. The area is very poor and  very arid, with little irrigation and much lower literacy rates. The villages are larger, and are more likely to have infrastructure like middle schools, a health facility and a road connection compared to villages in West Bengal. In Rajasthan, there were no regularly elected GP systems until 1995.9

Duflo and Chattopadhyay found that gender in both West Bengal and Rajasthan has an impact on the provision of public goods by the GPs.  When positions are reserved for women, the provisions of public goods are more closely aligned to the preferences of women than of men. When women are elected as leaders due to reservation policies, they are more likely to invest in policies that are more closely linked to women’s concerns, such as drinking water. They are less likely to invest in infrastructure that is culturally seen as a priority for men, such as education (in West Bengal) and the provision of roads (in Rajasthan). These findings demonstrate that reservation policies have important effects on policy decisions made at the local level, especially when these policy priorities are made by women.10

This is significant because more and more countries are considering the implementation of reservation policies, with Morocco and East Timor recently adopting quotas. These findings also demonstrate that even at the lowest levels of local government, all mechanisms involved, especially the participation of females, affects important policy decisions for the community.11


STUDY 2 – Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias

Duflo wished to observe the social norms in West Bengal, to see whether exposure to female leaders could alter social norms and local perceptions of a woman’s ability to lead. Duflo acknowledged that according to the culture, voters were hostile towards female leaders. They saw women as less effective leaders and policymakers, and were more inclined to evaluate identical performances of males and females as less effective with females.11

The researchers examined electoral outcomes for both 2003 and 2008, and found that approximately 9% of unreserved GPs elected female pradhans, showing that there is no real impact from the reservation quotas, which saw a result of around 10%. Again in 2008, the quotas seemingly did not assist female electoral success. However, the researchers did find that reservations used for two elections, not one, did affect success.12

Researchers surveyed 495 villages in 165 GPs in the Birbhum district, to determine voter attitudes and electoral outcomes towards women. They asked respondents how effective they saw their current pradhan, on a scale of one to ten. The study sought to determine whether the bias against female leaders reflected a taste or a statistical discrimination held by the community. It cited that lack of information about women’s competence as leaders could prevent voters from taking a risk and electing women. This spurs forward a vicious circle of caution where voters never test out whether a female leader could be successful.13

Villagers were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of hypothetical leaders through vignettes and recorded speeches. Half of the villagers received female speeches, and half received male speeches. Duflo found that previous exposure to female leaders drastically reduced male villagers’ negative perceptions towards female leader effectiveness. In some cases male villagers rated female leaders higher than hypothetical male leaders, if they were already exposed to the practice of having female leaders in government.14

When women were selected for village councils for the first time in West Bengal they received low ratings. However, when voters were exposed to a female leader for the second time, voters valued the leadership of men and women at the same level. This could indicate that voters were adjusting to the idea of having female leadership, and/or that women were becoming better versed in the Indian electoral process.15

Over 100 different countries have introduced some type of affirmative action policies for women in government. But do these quotas work? The process forces voters to place women in positions of power, but some societies may resent the restriction of their choices which could result in the resentment of the female leaders. However, these requirements allow women to exceed expectations, showing voters that they are capable leaders. Duflo proved this with her random selection experiment, demonstrating that the bias against women leaders goes away once the society is exposed to female leaders.16


  1. Beaman, Lori, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova. “Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. July 2008. Issue Paper.
  2. Duflo, Esther, Petia Topalova, Raghab Cattopadhyay, Rohini Pande, and Lori Beaman. VoxEU CEPR Policy Portal. January 08, 2009.
  3. “How Women Rebuilt Rwanda.” The Institute to Inclusive Security.
  4. Hunt, Swanee. “The Rise of Rwanda’s Women.” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2014.
  5. Beaman, Lori, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra and Esther Duflo. “Women As Policy Makers: Evidence From a Random Policy Experiment in India.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Beaman, Lori, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.