Women’s reservation is a (unreservedly) good idea

Note: This article first appeared on Desicritics prior to the passage of the bill. It was subsequently picked up by the BBC and Global Voices Online.

Writing on Desicritics on the Women’s Reservation Bill, Sandeep Bansal provides us with the equivocal conclusion that “reservation is an easy shortcut,” that while laudable in parts must have “proper backup steps to have any significant impact.” As a counterpoint, I believe it is worthwhile looking again at the very valid questions he raises, viz:

  • Do we need reservation for women?
  • Is reservation really needed at the highest level?
  • Are reservations really going to make any difference?
  • Do we need sub-quotas?

Do we need reservations for women?

That, of course, is a matter of opinion. More important is the question of why we might want reservations. Two reasons come to mind.

At the level of principle, this might be because in an ideal, fair, and just society lawmakers would represent their consituents – in the ratio of the constituents. Ideally, that representation should emerge naturally – not by legislation. But as Sandeep points out, reservations are one way to empower women and to change attitudes, so as to lead to that natural order.

A second reason, often overlooked, is that such a policy is likely to increase the pool of talent needed at the top of our political class. Few would argue that India’s politics suffers from a lack of credible leaders. To the extent that that is the result of limiting our talent pool to men only, this policy is likely to increase the number – if not the probability – of better leaders.

Is reservation really needed at the highest level?

Sandeep argues that reservations might be necessary at the lowest levels to “bring about social change”, but perhaps at the highest level “merit should prevail.” And he argues that there is a good reason for the lack of women at the top – their family duties.

This explaination is hardly satisfactory. Women may well have “family duties” but that is not why they do not reach the top. They fail to do so because they often have no opportunity to balance that “duty” with their professional aspirations. Where such opportunity is provided they manage to be both good mothers and good leaders. This is evident from a recent NYTimes article on India’s banking industry:

HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, Royal Bank of Scotland, UBS and Fidelity International in India are run by women. So is the country’s second-biggest bank, Icici Bank, and its third-largest, Axis Bank. Women head investment banking operations at Kotak Mahindra and JPMorgan Chase and the equities division of Icici. Half of the deputy governors at the Reserve Bank of India are women.

One in five of India’s big bank, insurance and money-management companies is headed by a woman, according to a study by the headhunting group EMA Partners. By contrast, there are no women leading major American or European banks, and no woman has ever run a Wall Street investment bank.

Are reservations going to make a difference?

Sandeep argues that a reservation policy brings with it the risk of extending that policy to perpetuity. Yes, that risk is certainly there – but do the immediate resulting benefits outweigh that possibility? And even if that risk remains, it is a risk derived not from the principle (of better representation) itself, but from how that principle is translated into policy. So, avoiding that risk is simply a matter of better policy design – for instance by having rotating quotas to avoid institutionalization of the positive discrimination.

Sandeep concludes his answer to this question by saying it is too early to tell. But is it?

Enough countries now have quotas of one form of another to provide indications of the impact – both on performance of politicians and on public attitudes to women at the top. Indeed, if the objective of this policy is to encourage greater female representation and change attitudes, India’s own experiment with reservation at the panchayat and sarpanch levels offers substantial hope for a positive outcome:

Here, the evidence from a study of councils in urban Mumbai points to a positive effect. Women who have gained political office are more likely to run and to win in elections where there are no quotas.

Both men and women report a higher assessment of women’s performance as leaders once they have experienced it. A study of the state of West Bengal suggests that bias against women leaders remains, but is less likely to be based on the assumption they will prove incompetent.

Do we need sub-quotas?

For one thing, sub-quotas institutionalize into perpetuity exactly the kind of positive discrimination that Sandeep cautions against earlier in his post. Moreover, he argues that “real empowerment” can only happen at the bottom, but we need proper representation “across communities” at the top.

It is true that a women’s reservation bill without sub-quotas will benefit certain sub-groups more than others. But is that reason enough for sub-quotas? Or, can that problem be overcome in other way?

Which groups benefit will depend very much on which seats are reserved. For instance, if a muslim-majority constituency is reserved for women it is extremely likely that most parties will field muslim candidates and the winner would be a muslim. Hence, again the problem of unequal representation against communities is one of design (i.e. which seats are reserved), rather than one of principle (i.e. having sub-quotas).

Finally, of course, we must also acknowledge that a single bill cannot solve all social injustices. It is useful, therefore, to remind us of why we should have a reservation policy. If the objective is to increase women’s representation, then this bill should address that problem, regardless of others that exist in society.


Women’s reservation has been a long-time coming. This bill may not be the best solution or only solution to empowering women. But let not the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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