Path-Breakers: How Does Women’s Political Participation Respond to Electoral Success?

Women’s electoral success leads to an increase in female candidacy in subsequent elections.


Women are underrepresented in political offices around the world, comprising only 21% of national parliaments globally in 2013. In India, only 5.5% of state legislators were women over the period 1980-2007, but only 4.4% of candidates were women and 70% of state electoral races had no women at all. Indian women’s voter turnout has also consistently lagged behind that of men at 59%, compared with 66%. Numerous explanations have been posited for the lack of women in politics, including gender discrimination, the lack of female role models, women’s distaste for competitive environments, family responsibilities, and social norms. Given these explanations, the authors hypothesize that exposure to women politicians may encourage party leaders and voters to alter their preconceived ideas about women in leadership. Women leaders may serve as role models to stimulate subsequent women’s engagement in politics. To date, however, there has been little research on the impact of being exposed to women who have been competitively selected into leadership positions. In this study, the authors assess whether women’s electoral success in competitive elections leads to women’s greater political candidacy and voter turnout in later elections. Authors compare the likelihood of a female candidate running for office in the future when a prior female candidate either won or lost in a close election.


A victory by a female candidate in Indian state elections leads to an increase in the share of female candidates from major political parties in the subsequent election. However, it is likely due to previous winners running again in the following election as incumbents.  

  • The electoral victory of a woman results in a large and significant increase of 9.2 percentage points in the fraction of female candidates fielded by major parties in subsequent elections. The increase in women’s candidacy is driven primarily by the increased propensity of prior candidates to contest again; there is no increase in the presence of new female candidates in the subsequent election.
  • A woman’s electoral victory does not increase women’s candidacy in nearby constituencies and there is no evidence that a woman winning increases the chances that a woman will win the next election.
  • There is no impact on female or male voter turnout as a result of a female candidate’s victory.
  • Women winners who run for re-election are significantly more likely to do so from the same party as before, compared to men who are more likely to switch parties. This suggests that winning improves the intra-party environment for women more than for men.

This study uses data on state legislative elections from the Election Commission of India. The data includes the name, gender, party affiliation, and votes obtained by every candidate in every election held in India over the period 1980-2007. The dataset contains information for 14 Indian states, which account for over 95 percent of the total population of the country. The authors use a regression discontinuity design that involves comparing future candidacy and turnout in constituencies in which women won in close elections against men with those in which women lost in close elections against men.

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