Woman on top – is it better?

On July 25th, Pratibha Patil became India’s first female President. Because the Presidency is largely a ceremonial position, this is less significant than Indira’s ascension to the PM’s throne over 40 years ago.

Patil may be far from an exemplary figure, dogged by a long list of controversies including her advocacy of eugenic sterilization, allegations that she protected her brother from a murder charge, and her habit of speaking to dead people without being Haley Joel Osment, but at least she can do little harm as President.

What interests me more is the general question of whether the gender of a politician matters. Certainly, it’s hard to argue that there was anything about Indira’s reign that would reveal her gender.

However, at least at the village level, there is some compelling evidence that gender does indeed matter, but that female performance is unappreciated. Economists examined the effects of a 1993 constitutional change that reserved one third of village council leader positions (randomly allocated) in Bengal and Rajasthan for women. This is what they found:

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  • Female pradhans spent more on public goods preferred by women. [Link]
  • Female pradhans are objectively better – they provide more public goods, the quality of these goods is at least as good as elsewhere, and villagers are less likely to pay bribes. [Link]
  • Despite that, “voters are less satisfied with the performance of female pradhans than with that of male pradhans in providing all services, including drinking water, for which quantity and quality is objectively better … Surprisingly, those unhappy with women leaders include both men and women, and they blame women even for the service levels of those goods that the GP doesn’t provide.” [Link]
  • That’s right – women’s performance on the job is objectively better, they are less corrupt, but even so male and female voters are less happy with their performance and blame them for things entirely outside their control. While President Patil may have come to disfavor based on her own actions, in general it’s the story of Fred and Ginger for women politicians – they have to do everything that men do, but backwards and in heels.

    49 thoughts on “Woman on top – is it better?

    1. True equality is not just when a qualified woman can get the same position as a qualified man. It is also when an unqualified woman like Patil can become President just as easily as an unqualified man. So this is valid news.

    2. Here’s a burning question I’ve had for a while.

      Is Pratibha Patil to be referred to as the Rashtrapati or as the Rashtrapatni? Does this apply to the building that she lives in, and all the stationery and paperwork?

    3. Is Pratibha Patil to be referred to as the Rashtrapati or as the Rashtrapatni

      pingpong, the short answer “no” See this

    4. Rashtrapatni?

      he he. burning question, eh? i think you should sumit it to abhi for his ‘ask a brown man’ column.

      pravin, excellent observation. may PP live up to her full unqualified and corrupt glory!

    5. I want kalam back, he was the main excuse for growing my hair long in college. Ah! doesnt matter, since I’m out of college anyway. Now what excuse could I possibly use Mrs.Patil for?

    6. including her advocacy of eugenic sterilization

      the link said she made the comments in 1975, and beloved indira & her son sanjay were involved in this too, so i don’t know if this is something that is really that big of a deal normalized for indian politicians. and sweden sterilized women forcibly until 1975 fyi….

    7. When Indira Gandhi joined the cabinet she was dismissively referred to as “Goongi gudiya( dumb doll)” by a male colleague.Many years later , she was feted as the only “real man” in her government :-) So :

      general question of whether the gender of a politician matters

      Yes, it does matter at least it affects perception .Look at the brouhaha over Hillary’s choice of clothes in the Washington Post !

    8. ask a brown man’ column.

      You know, I initially read that as “as a grown man”, and spent two confused seconds wondering about minimum maturity levels for such questions.

      My mother, the political conspiracy theorist in the family, had come up with an elaborate reason why Pratibha Patil became president. “Keep waiting and watching, Manmohan Singh will be made to resign and Rahul Gandhi will become President. Pratibha Patil is just to ensure that the President does not object to Rahul Gandhi’s PMship”. And by way of undisputable, slam dunk evidence, she added “Have you never wondered why in all her 72 years Pratibha Patil never became President until now? It’s all a conspiracy I tell you. She had to wait until Rahul Gandhi was in a position to bid for PM”.

      That’s whom I get about half my genes from.

    9. allegations that she protected her brother from a murder charge

      What is WRONG with these politically-connected desi families? Murder and thuggery is so rampant among so many of them.

    10. pingpong, thanks for sharing the conspiracy theory — and keep them coming. I love them.

      I do object, a little and quietly, to the trite post title — too easy and not even really accurate.

    11. Many years later , she was feted as the only “real man” in her government :-)

      There’s an anecdote about Maggie Thatcher that she was once being introduced at some event before she addressed the audience. The person doing the introduction said “she is often considered to be the only man in the cabinet”, at which point she sharply interrupted “That is a statement that assumes the natural superiority of men, which I will not accept”.

      Speaking of the Iron Lady, there was once a devastating clue in The Hindu cryptic crossword: Iron man (6). After much thought, I found it was “female” (Fe-male).

    12. If Indian rashtra (nation) is a female (Bharat maata) and Rashtrapati is “nation hubby,” then the fact that Ms. Patil is a woman seems to be a clear sign of approval of lesbian relationships. /tongue-firmly-in-cheek

    13. I do object, a little and quietly, to the trite post title — too easy and not even really accurate.

      Objection is your right – but what is your objection to? The fact that the President isn’t really on top?

    14. When Indira Gandhi joined the cabinet she was dismissively referred to as “Goongi gudiya( dumb doll)” by a male colleague.Many years later , she was feted as the only “real man” in her government :-)

      It was Kamraj (one of the old Congress power broker) that said that when she was made PM in public so that a reporter could hear it. The Congress old gaurd in late 60s had lot of infighting, larger than life egos, and IG was brought as an outsider candidate to be the PM because the top Congress brass could not stand one of them being a PM…like Kamraj did not like Morarji Desai, Nizlinguppa (my spelling might be wrong), and vice versa…they openly hated each other, yet were not powerful enough to sideline the other.

      Within a year of being PM, she expelled all the old gaurd from the Congress party, with the help of some young, back bencher MPs, and basically finished their careers. That was the start of her dictatorial, purge-style and machiavellian streak.

    15. Women on top is it better?

      Hmmmm– well it’s less work for a brova– if you know what I mean! ::wink:: ::wink::

    16. Apologies in advance for the Americo-centric post: it’s true in the United States that female representatives are much, much more likely to get “help me” requests from their constituents, as in “I need a business permit/green card hearing/etc.” Women are perceived as much more accessible, helpful and nurturing (whether this is a realistic expectation or not, people still have it).

      So perhaps when a male representative lays down the law and says “No, you can’t have that,” it’s expected on some level – but when a female leader does it, the reaction is “How COULD you?!” Perhaps this is the psychology that’s feeding in to people not appreciating their qualified female leaders.

    17. I do object, a little and quietly, to the trite post title — too easy and not even really accurate. Objection is your right – but what is your objection to? The fact that the President isn’t really on top?
      1. The president isn’t really on top.
      2. The evidence later about women being better wasn’t about people on top either.
      3. So the sexual metaphor seemed stretched, unnecessary and generally over-used in the blogosphere/yellow-press/nightshow realm already.

      But again, the substance of the post is interesting! I just wasn’t a fan of the title. Maybe I’m just a prude… or sleepy.

    18. Your points are fair. Here’s why I did it:

      1. The president isn’t really on top. 2. The evidence later about women being better wasn’t about people on top either.

      The women later were the heads of the village councils – they were high politicians at their level. And while Patil does not have much power, both symbolically and constitutionally, she is on top of the Indian state.

      What I wanted to convey was the idea of women political leaders, hence women on top, and I do think it applies, but I’m happy to take my lumps from a reader as well. I appreciate your politeness in disagreeing.

    19. I just wasn’t a fan of the title.

      At least, it wasn’t Pratibha Onatopp.

      I think Pravin #1 spelled it best. Hurray to simultaneously celebrating gender equality, and a retreat to the 60s and 70s culture of congress lackey ascendancy.

    20. Ennis, how much do I love you for the J-PAL nod?

      There is also an argument that women’s influence deteriorates when they are seen as proxies or puppets for male family members. I think this was in one of the J-PAL Rajasthan-series papers.

    21. The origins of “Goongi Gudyia” term:

      Background

      At the time Nehru’s daughter was handed the top job in Indian politics, she was regarded as a reserved, even diffident, person. The brilliant Socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia went so far as to dismiss her as a “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll). She was conspicuously lacking in political experience, not just in comparison with her father, but also when set against the leading Congressmen of the day, such as Kamaraj, Morarji Desai, Y B Chavan and others.

      Why the term?

      It became important only because Indira Gandhi was her boss and I & B minister. Shy, tongue-tied and new to Parliament — her ‘goongi gudiya’ phase had yet to begin — Indira left it to Nandini the task of answering parliamentary questions most of the time. The younger woman did so well enough and impressed the future prime minister.

      It was Nandini Satpathy.

      I think Kamaraj made a similar off the cuff when she was selected PM.

    22. “That was the start of her dictatorial, purge-style and machiavellian streak”.

      Interesting, do you think she HAD to be like that because she was a woman?

    23. Interesting, do you think she HAD to be like that because she was a woman?

      i think a lot of women politicians feel that way, and given the time and circumstances of her power, it’s not an unfair portrayal. in her case, there was the added nepotism, which i am sure exaggerated any scepticism attributed to her gender.

    24. Interesting, do you think she HAD to be like that because she was a woman?

      No.

      However, she was the most cunning, astute politician India ever had …..irrespective of you love her (Nixon and Kissinger loved to hate her) or hate her (for her bad governing style and too much socialism) or in between. She had deep flaws that showed up around 1976…..emergency, support for LTTE, creation of Bindranwalla (Bindranwalla was Sanjay Gandhi’s creation to make trouble with Akali Dal).

      Look @ her 9 cat lives…..1969 (Garibi Hatao), 1971 (the height of popularity, Indo-Pak war), 1976, 1977, 1978, and then one of ruthless comeback, 1984.

    25. Ennis, how much do I love you for the J-PAL nod?

      Careful, I can’t keep this up forever, we’re going to run out of relevant J-PAL studies soon. At that point, sniff, I’m sure you’ll leave me for another blogger! Ah, female economists are so fickle with their affection!

    26. creation of Bindranwalla (Bindranwalla was Sanjay Gandhi’s creation to make trouble with Akali Dal).

      Kush, quickly off topic but can you recommend any books that discuss this in more detail?

    27. Certainly, it’s hard to argue that there was anything about Indira’s reign that would reveal her gender

      I am not sure i understand.

    28. Certainly, it’s hard to argue that there was anything about Indira’s reign that would reveal her gender
      I am not sure i understand.

      Imagine I was to tell somebody who knew nothing about India about the political careers of several PMs and then ask them to pick out who was the woman. I doubt they could.

      However, in the study I cited, you can spot women pradhans from their job performance – what is important to them is different from what is important to male pradhans, and they are less corrupt.

    29. No von Misses,

      Please give me few days to get back to you. I might have to dig “India Today” archives to get a book for you.

      However, just google = Bhindranwale Sanjay Gandhi

      They were almost like brothers, and Sanjay Gandhi liked to meddle. Remember, Sanjay Gandhi was married to a sikh, Maneka Gandhi.

      Also, with LTTE in India, they played them against DMK/ AIDMK chess game.

    30. Why does India pick such shabby looking people for President. She looks like an auntie not a president.

    31. Why does India pick such shabby looking people for President.

      If they were better looking, they would be answering the question “What would you do if you were President?” in the talent round.

    32. Why does India pick such shabby looking people for President.

      Neither the PM nor the President are popularly elected, so they don’t need hair like John Edwards.

      If they were better looking, they would be answering the question “What would you do if you were President?” in the talent round.

      Ha!

    33. She looks like an auntie not a president.

      President Auntie? or Auntie President?

    34. Better an Auntie than an ATM* *(Auntie turned mod)

      /shudder …I still remember college days when the worst thing that could happen to you was to be identified as a BTMBFM ( Behenji turned Mod but failed miserably)

    35. Is Pratibha Patil to be referred to as the Rashtrapati or as the Rashtrapatni? Does this apply to the building that she lives in, and all the stationery and paperwork?

      Love this comment!! Pingpong, I was cracking up in my cube…

    36. Why does India pick such shabby looking people for President. If they were better looking, they would be answering the question “What would you do if you were President?” in the talent round.

      Easy now, based on what has been written this President Aunty can have you whacked, get away with it, and taunt you in the afterlife

    37. Careful, I can’t keep this up forever, we’re going to run out of relevant J-PAL studies soon. At that point, sniff, I’m sure you’ll leave me for another blogger! Ah, female economists are so fickle with their affection!

      Ennis, fortunately for you many of the J-PAL’ers are coming out with books in 2007-2008 ;)

      You’re right though; throw a pretty research design or an exciting chi-square test my way, or better yet, the do file that randomizes it, and I may have to leave. :)

    38. women’s performance on the job is objectively better, they are less corrupt, but even so male and female voters are less happy with their performance and blame them for things entirely outside their control.

      I don’t think Pratibha Patil is a good example to discuss this issue because I’m confident she’s not going to do anything worthwhile in her role. The issue here is that male and female voters are struggling to break out of societal prejudices against women in leadership positions. And when women do outshine male counterparts – they become exceptions to the rule or ‘the only man in the Cabinet’.

    39. They were almost like brothers, and Sanjay Gandhi liked to meddle. Remember, Sanjay Gandhi was married to a sikh, Maneka Gandhi.

      Kush, to call them brothers is an exaggeration. Not only was there culturally nothing in common, but Bhindranwale had his own agenda from day one, and it can be argued that in his own way, he used the Congress Party and not the other way around. He was no mere puppet but a man who quickly took things into his own hands and refused to be controlled by the politicians. Maneka is half Sikh by heritage, her father was Sikh, but I’m not sure how that ties in to Bhindranwale.

    40. Maneka is half Sikh by heritage, her father was Sikh, but I’m not sure how that ties in to Bhindranwale.

      Sure, Maneka does not tie in to Bhindranwale at all. I just wanted to point out the sikh connection to Gandhis.

      While I would agree Bhindranwale had his own design, and agenda in some form from day one. But I also think without Sanjay Gandhi’s initial patronage, he would have been a small-time rabble rouser or a village preacher from Damdami Taksal – the ones India is full of. In around 1977-78, Akali Dal at that time was with the Janata Party in power in State and Centre both, and Sanjay Gandhi really wanted to stir things up. He made Bhindranwale’s supporter field their own candidates against Akali Dal candidates for SGPC elections, and they were badly defeated. Even when Congress had come back to power, in early stages, they did nothing to check him. At that point, he was counterweight to Longowol and Badal. Sure, from there on, he took his own turn and direction.

      Oh, the brother thing…..sure, I was exaggerating and culturally they were as apart as one be. However, there is a very famous picture of Sanjay Gandhi and Bhindrawale deep in a conversation somewhere in Punjab, when he was nobody, that used to get published a lot.

    41. Indira Gandhi cannot be taken as an example of womens leadership anywhere in the world.

      She cannot be used alongside the current president of India, or women leaders of other countries.

      She was not a woman, nor was she a man. She was pure beast.

    42. Don’t really care that she is a woman (this coming as a woman) – may the best person get there, regardless of background, gender, religion, etc. The only question in my mind is, “why does the Gandhi family still have such a continued influence on India 50+ years later?”.

      The nepotism of Indian politics frustrates me. World largest democracy? Not really.

    43. I agree with Pauper. Indira Gandhi caused genocide, holocaust, mass-murder. You wouldn’t use Hitler as an example of a manly leader. You would compare the average male leaders with each other and see their traits. Similarly, Indira Gandhi was a maniac and totally on the fringe – you can’t use her as an example of women leaders.

    44. Some things we know about Ms Patil: (from another blog)

      “a practising lawyer before she joined politics, five consecutive terms as MLA, a clutch of portfolios in the Maharashtra Government, member of the 10th Lok Sabha, deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, and Governor of Rajasthan. All this topped by untrumpeted, constructive social work: engineering college for rural students, hostel for working women, development fund and cooperative bank for economically depressed women, schools for the poor and the disabled, and so on.”

      What I am also glad to know is that we may actually have a beauty queen for President -

      “Ms. Patil was a champion table-tennis player and quite the toast of MJ college in Jalgaon winning a beauty title in 1962, years before such contests would become the staple of newspaper pullouts. In 1965, three years after she won her first Assembly seat, she married educator Devisingh Shekhawat and became Pratibha Devisingh Patil — decades before the hyphenated surname became a feminist statement. As Ms. Patil quietly climbed the political ladder, her husband willingly took a backseat to her.”