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Gender gaps are a persistent challenge in cultures across the globe, whether it is a gap of income or educational achievement. Is it a dream that the gap can be erased?

Researchers at Harvard, MIT and Northwestern University have just published an extraordinary study in Science reporting that this is achievable, using a case study in India.

How did they do they study?

From June 2006 to November 2007 we surveyed a random sample of 495 villages throughout the 165 village councils in Birbhum district in West Bengal as part of a large-scale study of the effects of political reservation on various outcomes (see (33) for a detailed description of the data). Fifteen households in each village were randomly selected to take the survey, which included components for a prime-aged male and female respondent (typically the youngest married couple) and all adolescents (11-15 years old) in the household.

From their Abstract: {My emphasis}

Exploiting a randomized natural experiment in India, we show that female leadership influences adolescent girls’ career aspirations and educational attainment. A 1993 law
reserved leadership positions for women in randomly selected village councils. Using 8,453 surveys of adolescents aged 11-15 and their parents in 495 villages, we find that, compared to villages that were never reserved, the gender gap in aspirations closed by 25% in parents and 32% in adolescents in villages assigned to a female leader for two election cycles. The gender gap in adolescent educational attainment is erased and girls spent less time on household chores. We find no evidence of changes in young women’s labor market opportunities, suggesting that the impact of women leaders primarily reflects a role model effect.

They conclude: {my emphasis}

These results show that laws can help create role models by opening opportunities that were previously unavailable to a group, and this increased opportunity does not diminish the aspirations of those outside the group. The ability of affirmative action to create role models has been subject of debate: while the policy allows members of disadvantaged groups to access positions of prestige and power, it may also cause a backlash if it creates the perception that the
achievement was not due to merit. Our study shows that, in the Indian context, the positive effect of exposure to a female leader dominated any possible backlash, probably because it
gave women a chance to demonstrate that they are capable leaders.
And, perhaps most importantly, our study establishes that the role model effect reaches beyond the realm of
aspirations into the concrete, with real educational and timeuse impacts.

This study points to the importance of balance in representation of men and women in leadership roles on the achievement of the next generation.