Mumbai: Constituencies that elect women in India’s state legislative assemblies are likely to witness more economic growth than those run by male politicians, according to a new study that analyses the economic impact of electing women members of legislative assemblies (MLAs).

This is because women legislators are likely to be less criminal and corrupt, more efficient, and less vulnerable to political opportunism or attempts by politicians (mostly male) to stay in power, said the May 2018 paper from the United Nation’s University, World Institute for Development Economics Research.

“While there is evidence that raising the share of women politicians has substantive impacts on the composition of government spending, there is scarcely any evidence of how it influences economic performance…,” said the paper’s authors. They said their study was the “first systematic examination of whether women politicians are good for economic growth”.

The researchers examined election data for 4,265 state assembly constituencies between 1992 and 2012, which spans four elections in most states, a period of “strong economic growth”, during which share of state legislative assembly seats won by women increased from about 4.5% to close to 8%.

To isolate the causal influence of a leader’s gender on economic growth, the study focused on constituencies where women beat male MLAs by a small margin and those where men won against women MLAs by a similarly narrow margin.

Women light the way

To assess the economic impact of electing women MLAs, the researchers superimposed state-level election data on NASA satellite images to track the annual average “luminosity growth”, or the spread of electrification over an electoral term, a proxy for economic growth.

In constituencies run by women, this growth was 15.25 percentage points higher than those run by men, which translated to a 1.85-percentage-point rise in the gross domestic product (GDP) growth compared to constituencies that voted for men.

“Given that average growth in India during the period of study was about 7% per year, our estimates indicate that the growth premium for constituencies stemming from their having a female legislator is about 25%,” the paper said.

The economic progress witnessed in women-led constituencies does not come at the cost of lower growth in neighbouring male-led constituencies, the study found. To find out why, the researchers explored gender differences related to corruption, efficiency (completion of federally funded road infrastructure projects) and motivation--factors linked to growth in developing countries.

Men go to the dark side

Analysing the affidavits of elected MLAs, the study found that while, overall, men are twice as likely to have criminal charges pending against them, in closely-fought elections, this was significantly higher for elected male MLAs compared to women.

Women MLAs were also, on average, also younger.

While the study found about 10% of women legislators had pending charges, this was about 32% for men. An analysis of female and male MLAs accused of crime revealed that women legislators had significantly fewer charges than men.

“We estimate that this can explain about one-quarter of the difference in growth between male- and female-led constituencies,” the researchers wrote.

To support their findings, the paper ran quantitative research experiments, used in another 2014 study, to measure gender difference in corruption while holding office, as understood through an MLA’s net accumulation of assets and wealth during an elected term. These data become available when MLAs file affidavits before contesting the next election.

The study found the annual rate at which women MLAs accumulate assets while in office is 10 percentage points lower than it is for men.

“These findings align with experimental evidence that women are more fair, more risk-averse, and less likely to engage in criminal and other risky behaviour than are men,” the researchers concluded, citing other studies from 2001, 2008 and 2010. “It establishes corruption as a likely contributor to the economic advantage of women legislators,” they wrote.

Women more effective at delivering infrastructure for growth

To assess the gender difference in efficiency of elected legislative members, the paper analysed the growth of road networks.

While male and female politicians are both likely to attract federally funded road building projects in their constituencies, women MLAs are more likely to oversee completion, the study’s data showed.

The share of incomplete road projects in constituencies run by women was 22 percentage points lower than those run by men.

The study did not find any significant difference in the size or cost of projects undertaken, suggesting women are more effective at completing projects, and, hence, infrastructure for growth.

“More clearly, since road construction in India has been shown to produce higher returns in terms of job mobility for men than for women, our findings establish that women are not only good at serving the interests of women,” the researchers wrote.

Women MLAs more motivated, men more opportunistic

To analyse the gender differences in legislators’ motivations to perform in their constituencies, the study divided the sample into “swing”--where the victory margin was less than 5% in two consecutive elections--and “core” constituencies. Consecutive closely fought elections involve greater competition with electoral incentives for MLAs to work harder, they found.

In swing constituencies, growth did not depend on the legislator’s gender, or the difference in performance between women and men legislators was insignificant.

However, in the analysis of non-swing or core constituencies, the study found that constituencies run by women have significantly higher growth rates than those led by men.

“One explanation of this is that women legislators are less opportunistic and exhibit higher intrinsic motivation,” the researchers wrote.

9% of MLAs in India are women

Currently, of 4,118 MLAs across India--where 48.5% of the population is female--only 9% are women, according to the 2018 Economic Survey of India.

Differences in preferences between men and women play a role in determining the better economic performance of women legislators, according to the study.

“We provide important new evidence at a time when women are increasingly participating in government across the globe,” the researchers wrote, drawing attention to the Women’s Reservation Bill of 2008, pending parliamentary approval for over a decade. The bill seeks to reserve a third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha (Parliament’s lower house) and state legislative assemblies.

“The feminisation of politics is one of the most exciting political phenomena of our time,” the researchers wrote. “Yet, we do not know what it portends for growth, the rising tide that is thought to lift all boats.”

(Saldanha is an assistant editor with IndiaSpend.)

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