What are women leaders good for?

On April 15, a panel at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, focused on a newly released study, “Progress Report on Women in Peace and Security Careers: U.S. Executive Branch.” Jolynn Shoemaker, Executive Director of Women in International Security (WIIS) presented highlights from the report. Major findings include: the situation for women in security careers is less difficult than in the previous generation due to the decline in overt discrimination, but the lack of role models and mentors/sponsors and problems with workplace-life balancing persist.

During the discussion, the question was raised about the effects of having more women in leadership positions in peace and security institutions. Ms. Shoemaker responded that we haven’t yet reached the critical mass in many U.S. security institutions to address the question.

This question is both important and researchable in many areas of leadership. A danger arises, however, in essentializing gender, just as with race, ethnicity or any other social category. Since when, for example, has Clarence Thomas made a decision to benefit the majority of African Americans? And what has Condaleeza Rice done specifically for women of any race/ethnicity?

Having issued that warning, I invite you to consider what local level data from rural India reveals. Some background: since the mid-1990s, one-third of Village Council head positions have been reserved for women, and Village Councils make decisions about the provision of many important public goods.

This study used a dataset of 265 Village Councils in Rajasthan, located in India’s northwest adjacent to Pakistan, and West Bengal, located in the east adjacent to Bangladesh. The survey compared investments in Village Councils that contained reserved positions for women and those that did not.

The finding: the gender of the politician does influence policy in rural India. In both states, when the Village Councils have women members, there are significantly more investments in drinking water as opposed to investments in roads and education.

This post is the first of several to pursue the question of gender and leadership. Your comments and contributions are most welcome.

Image: “India04_tilonya_mela-womensday2” from flickr user thaddeus, licensed with Creative Commons.

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