Why Women Mobilize: Dissecting and Dismantling India’s Political Gender Gap

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In India, there persists a striking gender gap in political participation and representation. This political gender gap persists despite decades of democracy and universal adult suffrage, rapid economic development, and large-scale policies aimed at women’s political empowerment. Women’s political participation is important not only on normative grounds of inclusion, but because we know that when women do participate, politics changes. Why does this gender gap in political participation persist and how do women become active political participants? I develop a theoretical model of political behavior which sustains a gender-gap political equilibrium: an equilibrium where men show up, speak up, and are represented in political institutions, but where women remain less present in political spaces and decision-making. I draw on theories of social networks and identity politics and argue that women’s lack of political participation is the result of coordinated political behavior in the household. Women are constrained by limited social networks, stemming from the household division of labor, gender norms, and limited mobility, and, thus, coordinate their political behavior with the household to maximize political gains. Household bargaining dynamics, however, dictate that men act as the political agent of the household and thus participate in politics. I suggest that this political system is not only marked by a gender gap in political participation, but also patronage political networks and under-provision of public goods. I then argue that when women’s social networks shift in such a way as to include more women, often because of female-targeted social policies, gender as an identity can become politically salient and women’s political participation increases. This holds even when resource allocations, social norms, and household dynamics would suggest otherwise. I further document how women’s political inclusion can yield improved local governance and greater provision of public goods.