Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India

Seeing is believing: Female leaders’ presence narrows the gender gap in girls’ aspirations and advancement in education.


Gender quotas are increasingly being used to mitigate women’s historical underrepresentation in certain career paths, including but not limited to, political leadership. Aside from the obvious outcome of greater gender balance in male-dominated arenas, one possible and expected effect of quotas is that the first women to fill these quotas will act as role models, opening up previously male-saturated environments for other women and lowering gender barriers. Putting this theory to practice, the Indian government passed a 1993 constitutional amendment to address the dearth of females in elected political positions. This amendment required states to reserve a certain proportion of all council chief- or “pradhan”- seats in its villages for women. Each five-year election cycle, one-third of villages are randomly selected to appoint a female pradhan. Because of the random nature of the quotas, one village may go zero, one, or two or more election cycles with a female leader. After implementing these quotas, India saw an increase in the proportion of women as village leaders from 5% in 1992 to over 40% in 2000. Using data from villages in West Bengal, which adopted the quota system in 1998, this study explores how seeing female political leaders changes girls’ aspirations for themselves, parents’ expectations for their female children, and how far girls continue in school.


At the time that data were collected, villages had gone through two election cycles, meaning that each village had a chance to experience a female pradhan as little as zero and as many as two times. The presence of a female village council chief had a modeling effect, increasing both adolescent girls’ career aspirations and educational attainment and their parents’ aspirations for them, while decreasing time spent on household chores by girls. This role model effect began to close the gender gap and change expectations regarding gender and achievement.

In short, quota systems that promote women in positions of leadership empower not only female leaders, but also female youth who look up to them as role models.

  • An increase in parental and adolescent aspirations and a decrease in the gender gap became apparent only in the villages that had seen two cycles with a female pradhan.
  • Parental aspirations for boys did not change across villages in terms of educational or occupational attainment. In villages that never reserved a female pradhan seat, expectations for girls remained low. In these villages, parents were 45% less likely to have aspirations for their daughter to attend post-secondary school than were parents in villages with female pradhans.
  • The gender gap in parental aspirations decreased by .14 standard deviations in villages with two female leader cycles. In these villages parental beliefs that a girl’s in-laws should determine her occupation dropped from 76% to 65%.
  • The increase in parental aspirations for girls was seen to be stronger in mothers than in fathers across all categories, but a favorable view of female pradhans and the desire for a daughter to one day become pradhan was particularly increased in fathers.
  • The gender gap in adolescents’ own aspirations was .51 standard deviations in villages that never reserved a seat for a female pradhan, compared with a much smaller .17 standard deviations gender gap in twice reserved villages.
  • In villages with two female leadership cycles, adolescent girls were significantly more likely to have higher achievement aspirations for themselves than girls living in villages that never had a female pradhan. Girls were: 8.3 percentage points less inclined to want to be a housewife or to allow their in-laws to choose an occupation for them; 8.6 percentage points more likely to desire a job that necessitates an education; and 8.8 percentage points more likely to want to get married after the age of 18.
  • In villages with female council chiefs for two election cycles, the gender gap in adolescent educational attainment was erased, with the percentage of girls reading, writing and attending school equal to or surpassing that of boys. In these villages, the gap in time spent on household chores among genders also decreased by 18 minutes a day as compared to villages that never reserved a female council chief seat.
  • There was no change in young women’s labor market outcomes. This suggests that the narrowing in the gender gap in these villages was due to female leaders’ influence as role models and not female pradhans’ adoption of female-friendly policies.

In 1993, India adopted gender quotas for elected positions on village councils. Though this practice was wide spread throughout India, this study used West Bengal as its study site, a state that instituted the quotas in 1998. Each election cycle, one-third of this area’s village councils were randomly selected to have a female pradhan. The authors compared the aspirations of parents for their children aged 11 to 15, and the aspirations, educational attainment, and time allocation of adolescents themselves, across villages with zero, one, or two female leaders over the course of two election cycles.

The data was collected in 2006 and 2007 in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. As village councils govern more than one village, the survey covered 495 randomly selected villages from Birbhum’s 165 village councils. The researchers interviewed 15 randomly selected households per village. The final sample included 2,335 male and 2,438 female respondents, including 3,257 adolescents.

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