What stops women entering politics?

Around the world, women are under-represented in politics. A study following female candidates in India pinpoints the crucial role of procedural fairness.

Across India, the representation of women in different legislative bodies remains low. Currently, only 14 per cent of elected members in the national parliament are women.

The numbers are similar in many countries around the world. Why is gender balance in politics so hard to come by?

A new study from Monash Business School set out to understand why women are less likely to enter the political arena in India.

Suggesting this may also have broader implications for other countries where there is female under-representation in politics.

According to the UN in 2019 only one in four parliamentarians worldwide were women.

It has typically been explained as the result of either discrimination or differences in abilities and preferences over careers, as well as higher female sensitivity to work-family conflicts.

But could there be underlying barriers aside from any cultural mores for their hesitancy to put themselves forward?

Gender gaps and participation hurdles

The working paper looks at a hurdle that requires Indian candidates wanting to participate in elections to pay a nominal monetary deposit. This is forfeited if they get fewer than one-sixth of the votes.

While the fee is designed to discourage non-serious candidates from clogging the ballot paper, an unintended result of the rule has emerged that regrettably perpetuates gender gaps in the country’s political candidates.

The researchers looked at the results from India’s state elections between 1977 and 2019.

After studying the impact of this eligibility requirement, it seems that the candidates that forfeit the monetary deposit are less likely to re-contest in the subsequent election.

However, this is true only for female candidates while men continue to re-contest at similar rates.

The humiliation of defeat

Dr Umair Khalil, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability explains that forfeiture is universally regarded as a humiliating defeat in Indian society.

“Female candidates who forfeit the deposit are 60 per cent less likely to re-contest in the next election, while there is no impact on men at all,” Dr Khalil says.

“Of the women who lose the deposit, 90 per cent are more likely to change party affiliation and also receive a lower vote share in the subsequent election.”

He and co-authors Associate Professor Marco Faravelli from the University of Queensland and Dr Sundar Ponnusamy from Monash Business School’s Centre for Health Economics, found that these results are driven by states where the gender ratio is tilted in favour of men signifying regressive gender norms as an important mechanism.

The researchers found that after losing their nomination, women are left with only two realistic options: either give up or run with a party that will nominate them, even if it is less popular with voters.

Why are more women not represented in politics?

Under-representation of female candidates in politics is common in most countries.

An influential study has provided evidence that women are less inclined than men to enter a competition.

This, in turn, could explain why few women win contests for top positions, contributing to the gender imbalance.

“This has both considerable equality and efficiency repercussions, due to the considerable waste of talents. It is widely understood that larger female political participation has been linked to greater government spending in both welfare and health care,” Dr Khalil says.

“But we found evidence that regressive gender norms and the stigma of female failure may play an important role in driving this result.”

The hindrance contributing to this gap is the different ways men and women are impacted by procedural barriers to political candidacy.

“Our findings fit with previous research that has documented gender gaps in competitiveness across various sectors,” he says.

“But there is also evidence that gender imbalance can be mitigated by information interventions highlighting the costs of dropping out.”

Female role models have little sway

Even the presence of female role models, measured by past electoral winners or women who have managed to secure high vote share, does not seem to dampen this deterrence effect.

“Our finding concentrated on states where gender norms are more regressive and is exacerbated in areas with high news media penetration,” Dr Khalil says.

“These two facts suggest that the stigmatisation of female (over male) failure may play an important role in explaining our findings.”

However, the researchers also point to results from a survey of potential voters that shows the electorate is more forgiving and encouraging of female than male forfeiters, even in a state that ranks among the worst in terms of gender equality.

Party leaders can do more to help

A survey of the electorate shows voters are unlikely to punish female forfeiters, suggesting instead that male-dominated party leadership may be part of the problem.

“We found that the male leadership tend to stigmatise female failure more than male failure and then they decide to withdraw the woman from the party nomination,” Dr Khalil says.

“Female candidates who lose their deposit are 76 to 90 per cent more likely to run under the banner of a different party in the next election than those who retain it, while there is no effect for men.”

He believes this shows that party leadership may evaluate re-candidacy applications by female forfeiters more harshly than their male counterparts.

What reforms would work?

Dr Khalil says the research raises an important issue for future policy reforms that are focussed on revisiting procedural barriers to political candidacy as a means of increasing female political representation.

“Such policies can also have wider relevance for other democracies around the world that implement similar rules including, Australia,” Dr Khalil says.

“Our future research aims to evaluate whether such protocols also have relevance in Western democratic societies.”

Published on 3 May 2022