How Quotas for Female Leaders in India Impacts their Society

While in NYC last week, I had a meeting with Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies in order to discuss a potential teaching opportunity in their leadership labs in 2013.  This picture includes Nathalie Molina Nino and Erin Vilardi of the Athena Center and my business partner, Cindy Tortorici and myself at this meeting.  This center is headed by Kitty Colbert (the civil rights attorney who is responsible for Roe v. Wade’s very existence).  Upon reviewing the center’s literature on my flight home yesterday, I uncovered a fascinating piece of research by MIT’s Esther Duflo whose work seeks to answer the fundamental question:

Would greater equality in gender representation change the perception of women business leaders and make it easier for women to follow in their path?

The current state of gender inequality in government and business leadership:

  • The percentage of women in the top ranks of US corps has barely moved in the last 2 decades.
  • In 2008, women accounted for less than 3% of CEO’s of US firms, an increase of 2% since 1992.

Given this slow progress, is it time for bolder remedies?

  • While there is no direct method of predicting the economic consequences of imposing gender quotas on US corporate boards; Duflo’s study of the far reaching shift carried out in India’s system of village government offers unexpected insights about the effects of quotas on a population.
  •  In 1992, India passed a constitutional amendment to assign 1/3 of the village council seats to women as well as 1/3 of the councils would have a female council leader, or pradhan.
  •  More than 100 countries have adopted some form of mandatory quotas to accelerate women’s representation in government.
  •  The only way that the # of women in politics worldwide has increased is through the adoption of some form of quota policy.

 Upon reviewing how a leader’s gender influenced a council’s agenda (265 village councils in the states of West Bengal & Rajasthan), Duflo revealed:

 1. Women villagers were more likely to speak when there was a female leader in charge.

2. The presence of a female leader encouraged more participation by both men & women.

3.  Women leaders were found to take less bribes than their male counterparts.

4. The second generation of female leadership of villages, proved to be more effective (since the compounding effect of the women’s efforts to invest in public works infrastructure was now taking effect).

5. In villages that had experienced 2 cycles of women leaders, girls were more likely to say they wanted a career, and that they wanted to serve as a pradhan.

The overall societal impact of imposed quotas for female leaders in Duflo’s India research:

  •   Quota policies can be very powerful in changing attitudes, though the effect might be less than desired: men might not admire women leaders any more than they used to, but there is an increase in respect.
  •  Avoiding half the population is a waste of talent and potential. It is also a question of social justice-of giving all people the opportunity to lead their societies” noted Bruce Kogut, the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Professor of Leadership and Ethics, Columbia Business School.

 I am so happy to have uncovered this study and I am eager to hear from you if you are equally struck by its findings on how these quotas can make the needed shift in perception, attitude and visioning that is critical in order to embrace this long overdue societal shift.



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