In India, Women Leaders Have a Legacy

As the United States contemplates the possibility of its first female president, we look at India, which in 1992 mandated a place for women in local governments. Esther Duflo of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab found that women there lead differently than men.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Wednesday was Margaret Thatcher Day in the Falkland Islands, commemorating the British prime minister's 1983 visit there. Yesterday, it was announced Germany's Angela Merkel will travel to the U.K. to meet with her counterparts, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

And today, in the United States, pundits are still debating whether America is even ready for a woman president. Among the banter: Would a woman lead differently than a man?

And for some perspective, we could look to India, where there's actually a body of evidence about that subject. A 1992 amendment mandated a place for women in some levels of government. So we're going to hear from Esther Duflo. She is co-director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and a professor of econ at MIT. She studied how women led and how citizens reacted to female leaders after a change in India.

Esther, thanks for being with us.

Professor ESTHER DUFLO (Co-Director, Jameel Poverty Action Lab; Economics, MIT): Thank you.

STEWART: Tell me a little bit about what precipitated this constitutional change in India, and what exactly was the change?

Prof. DUFLO: So there was a longstanding interest in India about having woman (unintelligible) in government, at all level of governments. So what happened in 1993, they modified the constitution of India to give more power to the most local level of government, which is called the Panchayat. So the Panchayat is a group of villagers together who are administering local public goods - irrigation, school buildings, water, drinking water, wells, et cetera.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Prof. DUFLO: And at the same time, they thought it was - the time was right to do an experiment, a nationwide experiment in giving more power to the women.

STEWART: So a certain number of seats on these local governments were set aside for women?

Prof. DUFLO: Exactly. So what happens is that each of these local governments is made of a council and then there is a leader for each council. And what the constitutional amendment said is that each council needed to have one set of women at the minimum. And as well that each - that one set of each council needed to have a woman as a leader.

So what happened is that they indicated that each state must select for each election one set of the villagers and said you can only elect a woman as the head of the village council.

STEWART: In terms of their study of these villages, which had this one-third of women involved in the local government and a third, leaders, what did you discover was different about the way women led?

Ms. DUFLO: So what we did is that we went and we took a survey of what this woman have done, and we also took a survey of what woman voted, what woman voter wanted. And what we found is that a woman and man do very different things. They spend their resources very differently and in particular, woman invests - woman leaders invest much more in drinking water infrastructure.

And what we also found is that this is also exactly what the woman voter wants. Woman voter wants more infrastructures for drinking water because they are the ones who collect the water. So in summary, what we found is that woman leaders reflect the preferences and the needs of woman more than men leaders do.

STEWART: What did the men leaders invest their time and their villages' energy and funds into?

Ms. DUFLO: That's a very good question. So one study, which - one finding of the study, which was a little bit controversial is that in one of the states where they do, which woman do less of, is investing in schools. We found that men leaders were building more schools.

Well, some people found this event unappealing because we have this intricate idea(ph) that women lead in(ph) education, et cetera. But we have to remember that there is only a fixed budget, so if you build more wells, you have less money for schools.

STEWART: When women invested in water, the women leaders invest in the infrastructure and you said that the women constituency, the women in the constituency, that was their big concern as well. Is it that woman leaders are reacting to things that have meaning in their lives? And because they're in positions of power, they actually are - can do something about it?

Ms. DUFLO: Yes. So that would be my interpretation. That would be exactly my interpretation of what's going on, is that women and men both do in a sense what they feel should be done. And once people are elected, they don't only respond to the expressed needs of their constituency. They also respond to what they feel is important because they're the only ones who are doing their job day in day out. And women are just much more attuned of these type of needs than men.

STEWART: This constitutional amendment has been in place for about 14 years -if I'm doing my math right - 14, 15 years.

Ms. DUFLO: Right.

STEWART: Has the way people reacted to female leaders, has that changed over the course of time?

Ms. DUFLO: Yes. We were interested in the perception of the citizens, do they like the women leaders or do they dislike them in particular, are they prejudiced against them. And we were interested in the several questions which is when you're exposed to a female leader, does this changes your opinion of the capability of women to govern?

So what we did is that we tried to measures people's bias against women as leaders by doing the following simple experiment. We took a speech that was -a real speech that's from one of these leaders had said one day.

And we had female actors and male actors record those speeches on the tape. And then we went to see villagers and we had them listen to either version of the speech. And we asked them to discuss the opinion of the leader. Do you think this person is a good leader? Do you think you would vote for them, et cetera?

And the fact finding we have is that in places, which has never had a woman leader, men, in particular, rate their male actors much higher than the female actors, even though the speech is exactly the same.

STEWART: Hmm.

Ms. DUFLO: They just feel that if it is a fmale actor, it must be a bad leader, so they give much lower rating - so with a fact finding, which is a little bit depressing. The second side(ph), although, which is much less depressing is that, in places where they have been exposed to a female as leader, exposure actually helps people overcome their bias.

STEWART: So the United States shouldn't be frightened of possibly electing a female president?

Ms. DUFLO: No…

STEWART: …it's going to take the first step?

Ms. DUFLO: …the lesson - if you can take a lesson from these findings to the extent it applies to the U.S., which of course, might or might not be the case, is that exposure is actually helps people overcome matters of prejudice that they have in these cases. And in the U.S., there is ample evidence that people are very bad against women as leader, in a variety of circumstances, in - at political leaders, as leaders of farms, et cetera.

So if our findings have something to say to this debate is that if you hate a female president, then possibly it will be able to work for future woman to be elected in various position of power because people will sort of lose their instinctive distaste for having woman as leader.

STEWART: Esther Duflo is co-director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and professor of Econ at MIT. Thanks for sharing your study's findings.

Ms. DUFLO: You're welcome. Thank you very much.

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