Role models can reduce the gender gap: an experiment in rural India

Girls from the Birbhum village district in West Bengal, escaping the summer sun. Image credit: basoo!

I’m back at home in India, and visited my local toy store today, looking for a science kit for a wide-eyed young friend. A woman walks in, seeking a toy for a one-year-old child. “A boy, not a girl”, she hastens to add. The shopkeeper smiles, and says that at one year of age there isn’t really a difference. “I know”, replies the woman, “but I don’t want you to pick out a doll.”

This is a small example, but I find it sad how we impose these gender roles onto infants. You don’t need to be a sociologist to realize that much of one’s gender identity depends on society. If you ask an adolescent girl growing up in the United States what she wants to be when she grows up, her answer will be quite different from that of a girl in India or Afghanistan. Every society creates certain expectations for its children, and this affects the kinds of educational opportunities and careers they aspire towards. Crucially, study after study has shown that these ambitions really matter. What a child believes about their capabilities has a strong bearing on what they will actually achieve.

In the developing world, girls are routinely subject to lower expectations than boys. This bias creates an inequality in educational and societal opportunities. This raises an important question. Is it possible to reduce the gender gap in a society by changing the beliefs of individuals? A clever new study to be published in Science argues that in rural India, the answer is yes. The authors argue that the presence of a prominent female role model in an Indian village reduces the gender gap in that village.

Think for a moment about how you would test such a claim. Well, you’d have to randomly divide villages into two different groups. In the first set of villages, you make no change. In the second set, you put a woman in charge of each village. Then you wait and see how things change. It’s important that you choose the villages at random, because it ensures that there won’t be any other difference between the two groups. If you do see a difference develop, you can conclude that it must be caused by the change you made – in this case, the presence of a woman leader.

The insight by the authors was that India has already implemented such an experiment.

In 1993, India made a constitutional amendment to institute gender quotas nation-wide, for positions on village councils (gram panchayats). This has had a dramatic effect on the rural political landscape. In the eight years from 1992 to 2000, the number of women in rural village councils has risen more than eight-fold.

What’s more, in many Indian states, this quota was implemented in a randomized fashion. A third of the village councils are randomly chosen to be reserved for a female chief councilor (a Pradhan). Just the right conditions for our hypothetical experiment.

The researchers surveyed nearly 500 villages in a poor, rural district of West Bengal called Birbhum, about 200 km from Kolkata. The reservation system went into effect in West Bengal in 1998. Depending on how the dice fell, over the next decade villages in this district had either been reserved for a female Pradhan once, twice, or not at all. The researchers questioned both adults and adolescents (of ages 11-15), asking them questions about educational and career aspirations. In addition to measuring beliefs, they also looked at concrete results by conducting a math and reading test for 9 year old boys and girls enrolled in school.

Women carrying water in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. Fetching water is typically women's work in rural India, and water infrastructure goes a long way in reducing gender inequalities. Image credit: basoo!

Here is what they found. First, let’s look at villages without reservations. There is a real and measurable gender gap here. On average, daughters spend 79 minutes more per day on household chores than boys. Parents have higher educational aspirations for their sons. They are 10% less likely to want their female child to study beyond secondary school. This belief extends to the children, girls are less likely to want to graduate. Furthermore, this gap extends to actual educational outcomes. Girls are 6% less likely than boys to attend school, and 4% less likely to be able to read and write.

What about careers and ambitions? In these villages, three-quarters of parents believe that their daughters’ occupations should be decided by their in-laws, while not applying the same criteria to their sons.

Now, compare this to villages that have had two terms under a female Pradhan. Unsurpisingly, the parents’ aspirations for their sons remains unchanged. But things have changed for the daughters. Parents are now less likely to want their in-laws to decide their daughters occupation. These daughters are also spending less time per day on household chores. Their own beliefs about their abilities have changed. They are less likely to want to be a housewife and to want to marry after 18. They are more likely to want to graduate. They now prefer jobs that require an education.

What’s more, this change in beliefs also translates to a change in educational outcomes. After two terms under a female Pradhan, boys and girls are reading and writing at the same level. Across the board, from education and domestic life to career choices, the researchers find that the gender gap shrinks after female reservation. And it doesn’t end there. The researchers also found that post-reservation, villages are far more likely to elect a female leader. This simple policy change has far reaching consequences.

A young mother breastfeeds her child, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. Image credit: basoo!

What could be causing this change? The authors argue that people’s beliefs about womens’ capabilities change after being exposed to a strong, positive female role model. But that’s not the only possibility. It could also be that these women leaders are instituting policies that specifically help women succeed, such as investing more in female schooling. The authors don’t think that this is happening. To rule out this explanation, they repeated their study for a slightly older age group, from ages 16 to 30. For these young adults, they could find no evidence that the gender gap was any smaller in reserved villages, suggesting that this is a bona fide role model effect.

This study is particularly important in the Indian political and social climate, where gender discrimination is rampant. In 2010, the upper house of the Indian Parliament passed a bill that proposes to reserve one-third of all seats in the lower house and state legislature for women. The bill, a constitutional amendment, has faced widespread backlash and remains stalled in the lower house.

There is a lesson here for those who oppose political reservation for women. And that is this, political reservations are not just about power. It is also about creating role models, and opening up opportunities that are previously inaccessible. This study shows that in rural India, gender reservation leads to a real, measurable impact in reducing educational and social inequality.


Beaman, L., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2012). Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1212382

Image credits: Basoo!


Filed under Social Science

  • That made for some very interesting and intriguing reading Aatish!
    Role models have a strong and lasting impact on young minds no doubt;  however, what bothers me about this study is that the role model cited seems at least one step(if not more) removed from the child’s immediate environment.  A child’s first female role model is his mother and then other female relatives within her immediate family circle.  School becomes the next environment the female child steps into, where a female teacher is a likely role model.  How is it that the study selects a female ‘Pradhan’ as the most significant role model on which to base a study to determine whether gender gaps can be reduced to empower the female child in India? Is it because mothers and female teachers in India have failed to to be good role models for girls? Which makes me wonder how could a female ‘pradhan’ succed where the mothers and female teachers of a nation have failed. …

    • Hi Sushama. That’s a very good point you raise. However, the study isn’t saying that the Pradhan is the most significant role model, just that this is a convenient role model who’s effect can be properly controlled for (and hence experimentally investigated).

      I agree that family members and teachers would be far more effective role models. But to study this you would have to divide children into groups based on access to a positive role model teacher or family member (and how do you measure this?), while keeping other things equal (family income, education levels, etc.).  A very difficult task. But the positive outcome is this: if even at one or two degrees of separation, a role model can eliminate the gender gap in education, imagine how powerful they can be closer to home!

  • Very interesting, this should be mandatory reading for the anti-affirmative action brigade :-). What I would have also liked to see is how parents’ expectations for their daughters differed among fathers and mothers in the two groups. Did men see a new potential in their daughters? How did it compare to women? And did the parents’ change in perception correlate with their own level of education and income.

    Also, in line with Sushama’s comment it would have been interesting to see how related the parents were to the new women role-models.

    • Wow D, it sounds like you should have been a reviewer of this paper ;). You should definitely give it a read. 

      The first part of your question in answered in the paper. To quote the authors: “Indeed, mothers’ aspirations over education and occupation are altered more broadly while fathers primarily increase their desire for their daughters to become Pradhan. This last result is consistent with previous research showing that men’s (but not women’s) perception of women’s ability to lead improved in reserved village councils.”I don’t think they collected info on education and occupation of parents, but they did collect it for young adults (16-30) so it may be possible to do a correlation of the kind you mention. And interesting idea, to look at relatedness. Could well be a relevant factor in small villages.

  • Deepti

    I must say I have never been a fan of reservation in any form, but your article has added a new perspective. Other than a gender gap in terms of social acceptance at various positions and occupations, most states in India also have a skewed sex ratio!!! What with having very few career aspirations for the girl child many couples/ families don’t want to have girls at all! 

  • Nikhil Awasty

    I spent a year and a half working with Coca-Cola looking after sales & distribution in rural UP. Keeping in mind that a study in Bengal would have differences from more aggressive cultures like the one in UP.

    Coke is attempting to apply its global HR policies to all its units globally. A big driver of the HR key performance indicators is the diversity ratio in each business unit. I had 35 people in my team, all men. I faced tremendous pressure to hire women for my team.

    I interviewed many local women for openings and these were girls who had finished school and were either pursuing their undergrad or wanting to. Most of these girls were there for the interview in secret. They were allowed to go to college but not work. And the one’s who were allowed to work made it clear that once they got married and had kids they’d have to leave. So I had a stream of women who joined the team and never stayed longer than a few months. HR was happy because I maintained my diversity ratio (as long as it wasn’t zero they were okay – it’s very very hard to hire girls or find girls who will stay long term).

    The latest mandate given to us by the corporate honchos sitting in Atlanta is one I actually see working. We have to partner with retail outlets willing to sell Coke products, who are run solely by women entrepreneurs. We are struggling because these are so few and far between. 

    And I’m talking about areas where there isnt clean drinking water and people will share a 8 rupee bottle of thums-up to quench their thirst. 

    Rural India has not tasted as much of the benefits from the economic progress we see, but their ambitions have shot past those of people living in larger cities. They live in small temporary mud huts, or huddle together in one room with 6 kids but they know the difference between Coke and Pepsi. 

    And they are painfully aware that it is education that has made all the economic gap. They very proudly will tell you that their son/daughter is going to school or college. Even with the severely destitute I see them wanting to send their children to school. But given a choice to send one child to school, the boy gets the preference and it is accepted, and not even thought about. It’s understood that that will happen.

    And I know that these areas have women in their panchayats. But the progress is frustratingly slow.