Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?

Exposure to women leaders decreases gender bias and improves women’s future electoral prospects.


Although women can vote and run for office in nearly every country, in 2013, they accounted for only 20.9 percent of parliamentarians worldwide and headed the government in only twenty-two countries. Consequently, more than 100 countries have introduced gender quota policies to increase the number of elected women in public office. In 1993, India introduced a constitutional amendment that required states to reserve one-third of all village council chief posts for women. While these policies have been effective in increasing female political representation, have they improved the chances of future female candidates? This study examines how exposure to female elected officials, as a result of the quotas, influences opinions about women leaders and informs voter preferences.


The authors found that the quota policy was implemented successfully; the elected seats reserved for women were indeed filled by female candidates. By comparing the election results and attitudes about female leaders in Indian villages randomly selected to have a quota and with those that did not, the authors found that repeated exposure to female elected officials improved the perceptions of female leaders and led to future electoral gains for women. 

  • More women ran for and won unreserved seats in villages that had experienced a total of ten years of seat reservations over the course of 2 election cycles. Women made up 18.5% of chief councilors in these villages, compared to 11% in villages that had never experienced reservations.  These gains are not due to incumbents being reelected. In both election cycles, both reserved and unreserved positions faced similar incumbency disadvantages, with only 5.6% of incumbent officials being reelected in 1998 and even fewer in 2003. 
  • In villages with only one election cycle of reservations, male villagers rated female leaders 0.2 standard deviations below the average score of 5.1 (out of 10) on a four-item scale of leader effectiveness. Women’s perceptions of women leaders did not change.
  • However, perceptions of women in leadership improved among both men and women in villages who experienced two cycles women leaders. After two cycles, voters rated women elected leaders with scores similar to that of male leaders.
  • Nevertheless, both sexes still expressed distaste for female leaders relative to male leaders. Men in never-reserved villages rank male leaders 1.44 points higher on a 10-point scale while women in these villages rank male leaders 0.56 points higher, with strengthened negative feelings found among villages that had never had a gender quota.

 In short, seat reservations for women elected officials make villagers more likely to associate women with leadership and vote for women in the future; however, bias and stereotypes are more difficult to change.


This study collected data from villages in six West Bengal districts, that were randomized to experience zero, one or two elections with seats reserved for female candidates. Additionally, the authors administered a survey to a random sample of villagers asking them to evaluate both the village council leader and their overall satisfaction with the availability and provision of public goods. A smaller group of randomly selected villagers were also tested regarding whether exposure to a female leader affected gender stereotyping.

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