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Women politicians bring educational gains

Politicians' gender can have a significant impact on the educational achievements of their constituents, according to new research by Irma Clots-Figueras|. Her study of politics and education in India finds that primary educational attainment is higher in urban areas when female political representation is higher. In contrast, female representation does not have an effect on individuals living in rural areas.

The research, which was presented at the Royal Economic Society's 2006 Annual Conference at the University of Nottingham this week, shows that increasing female political representation by 10 percentage points increases the probability of someone getting primary education in urban areas by 6 percentage points. That is 21 per cent of the difference in primary school attainment between the richest and poorest Indian states.

What explains this finding? If female politicians care about women's needs, education will be more important for women in urban areas, since the returns to education (measured by the wage differentials between educated and non-educated women) are higher there. Moreover, in urban areas it will be easier for them to find employment in the non-agricultural sector, where their skills are required.

Men can benefit from education in both urban and rural areas, since wage differentials between educated and non-educated men are similar in rural and urban areas and they may have higher mobility to move to urban areas in search of non-farm employment.

According to this analysis, female politicians will invest more in education in urban areas, while male politicians will invest both in rural and urban areas. This can explain why female representation matters in urban areas but not in rural areas.

This report examines whether female politicians had an impact on the educational achievements of the Indian citizens who were living in the districts where they were elected between 1964 and 2000. Once female politicians are divided according to whether they were contesting for a seat reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes or not, it finds that those belonging to the lower castes are those who have an effect.

It might be expected that female legislators belonging to the party that won most of the seats would have more bargaining power than the rest. When dividing female legislators according to whether they belong to the party in power in the legislature or not, the research finds that those in the party that has the majority of seats are the ones who have the strongest effect.

India accounts for more than one third of the world's poor and it has very low educational attainments. The adult literacy rate in 2003 was 61 per cent, roughly the same as that in sub-Saharan Africa, an area that is 1.5 times poorer. Moreover, the female literacy rate was 47 per cent, lower than the 52 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. Educational differences are not only large across genders, but across states and rural/urban areas.

The motivation for this study is threefold:

  • First, education is mainly provided by the government, which can increase levels of education by implementing appropriate policies. Therefore, given that political institutions are key for education and are formed by different types of politicians, it is important to understand whether some characteristics of these politicians determine the type of policies applied.
  • Second, it is important to study whether a politician's gender makes a difference. The issue of female political representation has been increasingly important in India. In fact, reservation of seats for women both in the national and state governments has been debated since 1996 without agreement, even though it has already started in local governments.
  • Third, since politicians in India are elected in single-member constituencies, it is interesting to observe whether they favour the areas where they have been elected, in this case, by investing in education.


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Are Women Leaders Good for Education? Evidence from India by Irma Clots-Figueras was presented at the Royal Economic Society's 2006 Annual Conference at the University of Nottingham, 18-20 April.

20 April 2006