VoxEU Column Politics and economics

Women and politics

Data from the period 1870-1930 shed light on the economics of women’s political empowerment. They suggest that declining earnings gaps and evolving family culture should foster future extensions of women’s political rights. The constant increase of marital instability, however, may push the other way.

Women represent at least half the world population but, in the discussion on the causes and effects of democratisation, economists have devoted little attention to the analysis of women's political empowerment. This is changing.

Recent data collection efforts have made important progress in measuring the world-wide facts concerning women's political rights. The World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Index captures the size of the gap between women and men in four areas: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The last one is measured by the proportion of women among members of parliament and government ministers, and by the proportion of years a female has been head of state (over the last 50 years). Table 1 lists the top and bottom ten countries for the political empowerment sub-index. Women hold the most basic of political rights – the right to vote – in most countries, yet there is substantial cross-country variation in their degree of political empowerment. Moreover, even in modern democracies women are far from full political empowerment, with top-performing Sweden only reaching a 0.55 score. A natural question immediately arises: Would the world look different if women were in control?



Table 1. The Women’s Political Empowerment Index, 2006
Top Ten BottomTen
Countries Scores Countries Scores
Sweden 0.550 Saudi Arabia 0.000
Norway 0.495 Kuwait 0.005
Finland 0.470 Yemen 0.008
Iceland                        0.456 United Arab Emirates 0.015
Spain 0.421 Egypt 0.022
Germany 0.366 Bahrain 0.024
Sri Lanka 0.365 Iran 0.031
South Africa 0.326 Russian Federation 0.034
Ireland 0.323 Kyrgyz Republic 0.035
Netherlands 0.319 Mauritania 0.037


Source: World Economic Forum.

There is reason to believe that the determinants of women’s empowerment may differ from those of other social groups, such as the poor, racial minorities, or migrants. For example, in the vast majority of cases, women came after poor men in obtaining the right to vote. This consideration casts doubts on the relevance, when applied to women, of the purely economic arguments which have been proposed for universal male suffrage.

The extension of political rights to women carries implications for electoral choices and associated policy agendas. These outcomes are affected not only by the extension of the right to vote, but also by all the subsequent steps, such as the possibility to run for office, winning a seat, or getting the top job. The larger the differences between men’s and women’s choices, the larger the impact of letting women participate in the decision process. But which are the relevant differences between men and women that may drive them to different policy decisions? And what is their role in men’s willingness to relinquish part of their power? The following discussion focuses on redistribution policy choices, but could be generalised to a broader set.

One way to shed light on this issue is to focus on the following three facts:1

  • Men are richer than women, on average. The presence of a gender earnings gap is indeed widely documented. An earnings gap, in a politico-economic framework, implies a gap in the desired level of redistribution.
  • Women tend to prefer larger governments, possibly because of the higher risk associated with their earnings and a perception of government as a potential insurer. The higher earnings risk is influenced by family structure, since the break-up of marriage tends to make women’s economic position more vulnerable. This channel reinforces the first one.
  • There is cost to society from women’s alienation. The size of this cost is related to a country's culture, and in particular its family culture. Religion is a primary explanation of the observed cross-country differences in family culture. In particular, Catholic and Muslim countries exhibit a more traditional attitude toward women’s roles.2

The cost of women’s alienation is weighted by men against the cost of the additional redistribution they would have to face if women had a voice. It is therefore possible that under a progressive, high-cost culture, men are willing to power-share even if this means accepting too much redistribution. On the other hand, under a conservative, low-cost culture, men would have no reason to accept power-sharing unless the impact of the first two factors is minimised.

In turn, the gender gaps in earnings and preferences tend to evolve over time. The earnings gap has declined steadily with industrialisation,3 and that may be one reason for the initial wave of women’s enfranchisement during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. The rapid increase in the number of divorces in the post-war period has induced more instability that may have increased women’s preferences for redistribution.4 Culture can also slowly evolve, and societies may eventually develop a new family model which will make women less dependent on men. Since each country displays a different initial level, and a different rate of evolution, for each of the three relevant factors, it will at each point in time display a different degree of women’s political empowerment.

What are in turn the implications of women’s empowerment for the extent of redistribution? The above line of reasoning implies that more redistribution following women’s political empowerment should be expected only when the cost of women’s alienation is high relative to the gender-related gaps in earnings and preferences, i.e., in countries with a relatively progressive culture. Otherwise, either women would not even get to participate in the decision process, or else their earnings and preferences would be perfectly aligned with those of men’s, implying again no differential impact.

In recent research, I test the relevance of the above factors with respect to the extension to women of the right to vote. An empirical investigation over the period 1870-1930, which includes the initial wave of enfranchisement in those countries that are now modern industrial democracies, confirms that the decision to implement these reforms is affected negatively by the gender gaps in earnings and preferences for public goods, positively by the cost of disenfranchisement. I proxy (inversely) the earnings gap with the level of income per capita and the cost of disenfranchisement with the presence of Catholicism. The proxy I employ for the preferences gap is the availability of divorce, which makes women more dependent on government. This implies that a country is more likely to grant women the vote if it is rich, if it does not allow divorce, and if it is not Catholic.

I also show that the size of government tends to be positively affected by women's suffrage, as uncovered by previous studies,5 but also that the impact of women's suffrage is lowest in conservative, Catholic societies: where the cost of alienation is small, the franchise is extended only when women’s choice is not that different from men’s, implying a small increase in redistribution.

The same approach can be applied to the analysis of the subsequent steps of women’s political empowerment, following the right to vote, and of its impact on other relevant policy choices, including, for example, civil rights and foreign policy.

What are the implications of this discussion for the future role of women in politics? Earnings gaps appear to be steadily declining. Family culture is slowly changing in a progressive direction, at least in Western countries. If the combination of these two forces is strong enough to counteract the constant increase of marital instability, the outcome should be an extension of women’s political rights. Ironically, however, if the decisive factor were the convergence of men’s and women’s political agendas as an expression of their economic status, this outcome could be associated with a diluted impact of women’s involvement on actual policy choice.


1 See Graziella Bertocchi, “The Enfranchisement of Women and the Welfare State”, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 6396, July 2007.
2 See Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc, “Job Protection: The Macho Hypothesis”, Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2006.
3 Claudia Goldin, in “Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women”, Oxford University Press 1990, shows that the full-time earnings of American women rose from 46 to 67 percent of men’s earnings over the 1890-1988 period as a consequence of industrialisation.
4 Lena Edlund and Rohini Pande, in “Why Have Women Become More Left-Wing? The Political Gender Gap and the Decline in Marriage”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 2001, show that in the US the decline in marriage explains why women have increasingly favoured the Democratic party during the last three decades.
5 The most recent contribution is by Toke Aidt and Bianca Dallal, “Female Voting Power: The Contribution of Women’s Suffrage to the Growth of Social Spending in Western Europe (1869-1960)”, mimeo, University of Cambridge 2007.

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