Women are front and center this election, in part because a woman, Hillary Clinton, is front and center. Online, the conversation plays out over and over. What’s the real significance of electing the first female President? Is the symbolism itself revolutionary? Are the young women who don’t endorse Clinton betraying the sisterhood—or conversely, are the women who do support her following her blindly? What should it mean to voters that she could be the first woman in history to lead the United States?
“Women in politics,” however, means far more than just Hillary Clinton herself. America is 50 percent female. Congress, currently at a record high for gender diversity, is still only 19 percent female (and just 6 percent women of color). This year has a potential to be a watershed for women’s representation: Hundreds of women are vying for Senate and House seats. Six women are running for governor. Not all of them will make it to November, but even so this election has the potential to bring more women to national leadership positions than ever before.
Plus, there’s evidence that electing more women is something that could make a real difference for the country as a whole. Here’s what we know from the recent research in psychology, political science, and economics: Simply having more local female politicians can boost aspirations and educational achievement among young women, according to a landmark study co-authored by MIT economist Esther Duflo and published in Science.
Duflo and her colleagues surveyed roughly 8,000 adolescents and parents from West Bengal, a state in eastern India where quotas reserve one-third village council leader positions for women.
In villages that had never had a female political leader, parents were 45 percent less likely to expect daughters and sons to reach the same level of education. The girls themselves were 32 percent less likely to have the same aspirations as the boys. Correspondingly, boys were more likely to attend school, and had higher rates of literacy. By contrast, in villages where a female political leader had served for at least two terms, girls’ educational aspirations soared to meet the boys’, and parents were much more likely to expect their daughters to reach the same level of education as their sons. Beyond expectations, in reality the education and literacy gap between men and women disappeared. “We think this is due to a role-model effect: Seeing women in charge persuaded parents and teens that women can run things, and increased their ambitions,” said Duflo in a press release. West Bengal was an ideal place for the study specifically because its quota system is randomized, and researchers were able to rule out other factors that could shift attitudes around women’s roles, and thus make it more possible for a woman to be elected.
That makes this study all the more powerful: Simply having a prominent example of a female leader shifted people’s attitudes around women’s capabilities, and inspired young women to dream bigger and aim higher.
Having examples of female success can also elevate how women think about themselves. Indeed, role models of the same gender are more important for women than men, according to research published in Psychology of Women Quarterly—perhaps because both men and women grow up surrounded by images of male success.
Male and female students at the University of Toronto were given pamphlets describing outstanding achievements of men and women in their chosen fields, then completed a questionnaire about themselves. After women read about a female role model with a similar career path, they rated themselves more positively than they did after reading about a man. For the male students there was no difference between those that read about a male or female role model.
A separate study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, showed that when women are exposed to female role models, they actually perform better. In the experiment, male and female students were tasked with giving a public speech. The back wall of the room was either blank or had a picture of Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, or Bill Clinton. Women who were exposed to the picture of either Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel spoke longer, were rated as being better speakers by others, and rated themselves as having spoken better. Male participants performed equally well regardless of what was on the back wall.
“A lack of female powerful role models leads to a vicious circle, because if women fail to take leadership positions, they also fail to provide role models for junior women to follow,” the authors wrote. In policy, evidence suggests that politicians who reflect the people they serve better represent their needs. For example, in terms of racial diversity, a study published in the Annual Review of Political Science found that black and Latino legislators better represent the concerns of their respective groups than non-minority legislators, as assessed by their roll-call votes, committee membership, and bill sponsorship.
Research also suggests that female legislators are incredibly effective: On average, they bring 9 percent more federal spending to their home district, and sponsor three more bills per Congress, compared to their male colleagues. This may be because women may need to work twice as hard to overcome gender bias and to get to Congress in the first place, according to a study in the American Journal of Political Science.
“If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates,” write the authors.
If that’s true, then if eventually women achieve parity the effect may disappear. Even then, though, it would still conclusively prove that women are at least as capable as men. Research from the private sector—where, like Congress, boardrooms are overwhelmingly white and male—suggests that mixed gender groups might also just be more effective in general. Firms that have women in their top management levels—including up to the CEO level —on average see an increase of $42 million in firm value. They also deliver higher average returns on equity and better average growth.
Having more women in top management also motivates women in middle management, in a direct example of women at the top paving the way for those below. One of the quandaries when it comes to the low proportion of female elected leaders is the fact that when women do run, they actually fare about as well as men. The gender gap exists, in large part, because women don’t put themselves forward for office in the first place.
Study after study has found that compared to men, women are much less likely to think they are qualified to run for office. They are also much less likely than men to be encouraged to run by anybody else, and more concerned about facing gender bias (sexist portrayals of female candidates can actually discourage other women from running).
Yet all the evidence suggests that one way to inspire women to lofty aspirations is for them to see themselves reflected in positions of power — and that once there, they not only inspire the next generation but get things done. It’s a chicken and egg problem: if there were more women in power, it’s likely that more women would run for positions of power. And, it would probably change how people collectively think about women as well.
Many studies have found that when people picture a prototypical “leader,” they think of a man—and are thus more likely to tap men for promotions or candidacy. Having more easy, salient examples of female leaders is important in large part because it could shift subconscious biases so that they better match the reality—women can be just as effective leaders as men.
Editor’s note: There are eight women vying for office at the upcoming general elections here in Saint Lucia. If elected, will they help change the status quo or simply dance to the tune of their political piper who, naturally, will be a man?