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Why so few women in politics in India?

  • Blog Post Date 02 January, 2014
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Mudit Kapoor

Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre

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Shamika Ravi

Brookings Institute, India Center

Women are severely under-represented in political positions across the world. This column analyses constituency-level election data from Indian states to explore why this is so. It finds that while women are more likely to contest elections in backward states where there are more male electors than female electors, they are less likely to win elections in such states.

The severity of under-representation of women in political positions is highlighted by the fact that women representatives account for merely 20.3% of all parliamentarians in the world (International Political Science Association 2013). According to Norris and Inglehart (2000), the gap between men and women has narrowed the least in political representation, as compared to education, legal rights and economic opportunities.

There is growing evidence in the literature to show the association between women´s representation and policy decisions. Then why are there so few female representatives in political positions, relative to their share in the population and electoral rolls? This column seeks to answer this fundamental question.

A woman’s decision to contest elections

To analyse the decision-making process of a woman to contest elections, we use a simple model of representative democracy (Kapoor and Ravi 2013b).

In the political context, our study contributes to the broader literature and understanding of gender inequality. Amartya Sen´s observations (1990, 1992) on “missing women” highlighted that the ratio of women to men is suspiciously low in countries such as India and China. In democratic countries such as India, this worsening sex ratio of women to men in the population directly worsens the sex ratio of electors1.

In our model, the political candidates are “citizen candidates”, and the political process has three stages. In the first stage, each citizen decides whether or not to become a political candidate. In the second stage, citizens vote for the political candidates, and in the third and final stage, the candidates with the maximum number of votes chooses policy.

Some of the key features/ assumptions of the model are as follows:

  • The model assumes that the final policy outcome implemented by the winning candidate is a mixture of his/ her preferred policy and a policy option preferred by a local elite (which is assumed to be different from what the winning candidate would prefer). This could either reflect the ‘capture’ of decentralised government by local elite or that the elected representative is under the control of the elected state government and assembly. This framework developed by Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) captures to a very large extent the reality of the electoral process in India. Every citizen is eligible to vote and to contest election by standing as a political candidate. The political candidate who garners the maximum number of votes wins the election and is in a position to implement policies, but is also subjected to control by the elected state government and state legislative assembly.
  • While voting, citizens take into account the policy preferences and abilities of the candidates. Citizens decide whether or not to run for office depending on who else will enter the electoral race. The candidates, therefore, face a trade-off between the likelihood of winning the election and the fixed cost of contesting the election.
  • The cost of contesting an election is higher for women than for men. This is because women have less political experience vis-à-vis men.
  • Policy preferences of men and women differ, as shown by Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004)

What theory suggests

If the cost of contesting an election is higher for female candidates relative to men, then the model predicts that women are more likely to contest elections in those constituencies where there are more women “missing” in the electorate (places where the sex ratio in the population is not in the favour of women). The intuition for this result is that in places where the sex ratio is in favour of women, women do not have to incur the high cost of contesting an election to achieve their preferred policy outcomes. They achieve this through the simple act of voting. The model also predicts that in constituencies where the sex ratio is unfavourable to women, female candidates incur the costly strategy of contesting elections, not always with the objective of winning but to prevent those candidates from winning whose policy preferences are farthest from their interests.

If policy preferences of men and women differ, then the model shows that the worsening electorate sex ratio will lead to more female candidates contesting elections for political representation (Kapoor and Ravi 2013b). The model, however, also predicts that the worsening sex ratio of electorates will lower the probability of winning for female candidates. Together, the two results imply that there will be fewer female representatives in the Parliament from both types of constituencies. In constituencies where women are well represented, they do not contest elections, while in constituencies where the sex ratio is worse, female candidates contest elections, but are less likely to win.

To sum up, the key implications of the model are (i) if the median elector preference is more in favour of the women then it is less likely that women will contest elections, all other things being equal (ii) For a given cost of contesting election for women and the median elector preferences, the higher the lobbying effort of the political elite, the less likely it is that women will contest the election.

Assembly elections data from Indian states

To analyse the under-representation of women in political positions, we study women candidates in Indian elections using state assembly elections data from the Election Commission of India (ECI) over a period of 50 years (1962-2012). Consistent with the theory, we find that women are significantly more likely to contest elections in those constituencies where sex ratio of the electors is less in favour of women. For example, the probability of women contesting elections is much higher in backward states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the sex ratio of electors is in favour of men, than in socially developed states like Kerala where the sex ratio of electors is more in favour of women. The results also reveal that though more women candidates contest in constituencies with unfavourable sex ratios, they have very low chances of winning in these constituencies.

It is important to note that the cost of contesting an election for women could change with time. In our analysis, therefore, we account for these changing costs as measured by female wages and labour force participation in the different states over time.

Moving beyond the likelihood of contesting elections, we also analyse the determinants of actual number of female candidates who contest. Once again, consistent with the theory, we find that higher the sex ratio of the electors (that is, median elector preference is in favour of the women), lower the number of woman candidates who will contest the election.

Finally, we also evaluate the chances of women candidates actually winning an election, when they contest from a constituency2. The results reveal a striking finding. Women candidates are significantly less likely to win elections from those constituencies where there are fewer women electors compared to men in the population. That is, in a constituency where the sex ratio is against women electors, women candidates are very less likely to win, despite contesting elections.

Together with the previous results, this implies that though more female candidates contest elections from backward constituencies, fewer are likely to actually win and politically represent women electors.

Implications for policy

A commonly cited rationale for the reservation of seats for women in legislative bodies is that women have higher costs of running for office than men. As a result, several countries have legislated randomly reserved seats for women, for example in India, one third of village council positions have been randomly reserved for women.

Our results reveal that women are more likely to contest elections in places where the sex ratio of the electorate is against them. This suggests that if the objective of reservation is to promote compensatory justice and safeguard the interests of women, then it should be specifically aimed towards those constituencies where women are electorally a minority.


  1. Electors are different from voters. Electors are all people who are eligible and registered to vote. Voters are electors who actually vote in an election.
  2. This analysis is conditional on women candidates contesting from a particular constituency. There are several constituencies in different elections where no female candidates contested and we account for this in our analysis.

Further Reading

  • Bardhan and Mookherjee (2000), “Capture and Governance at Local and National levels”, American Economic Review.
  • Besley and Coate (1997), “An Economic Model of Representative Democracy”, Quarterly Journal of Economics.
  • Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra, and Esther Duflo (2004), “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India”, Econometrica, 72 (5): 1409-43.
  • Downs (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy, Harper Collins, New York.
  • Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi (2013a), ‘Women Voters in Indian Democracy: A Silent Revolution’, Working Paper, Indian School of Business.
  • Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi (2013b), ‘Why so few women in Politics? Evidence from India’, Working paper, Indian Business School.
  • Norris and Inglehart (2000), ‘Cultural Barriers to Women´s Leadership: A Worldwide Comparison’, IPSA 2000 paper.
  • Osborne and Slivinski (1996), “A Model of Political Competition with Citizen Candidates”, Quarterly Journal of Economics.
  • Sen, Amartya (1990), “More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing”, The New York Review of Books, 37 (20).Sen, Amartya (1992), “Missing Women”, British Medical Journal, 304, 587-588.
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