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Soledad Artiz Prillaman on helping women discover community—and their political voice

Faculty Affiliate Soledad Artiz Prillaman focuses her research on women’s participation in local politics.

In India, women’s participation in local politics mostly ends at the voting booth. They vote as often as men do, but are less likely to participate in politics or advocate for policies that would work for them, and just not the men in their home.

For Soledad Artiz Prillaman, this particular form of gender inequality—in India and other low- to middle-income countries—drives much of her research agenda as an assistant professor of political science and faculty affiliate at the Stanford King Center on Global Development.

Her passion for unearthing the roots of the problem and identifying solutions for engaging women politically has produced insightful findings. Specifically, she has studied how the rise of formal social networks aimed at empowering women financially also affects their willingness to engage in politics. To that end, she has found that women who join these self-help groups, as they are known, are twice as likely to participate in politics as non-member peers.

Soledad Artiz Prillaman
Soledad Artiz Prillaman

This narrows the gender gap in political participation, but doesn’t close it. One of Prillaman’s ongoing studies suggests that the gender gap can close when these groups, rather than evolve organically, directly discuss issues of gender inequality in society and the importance of political participation with the help of trained facilitators.

With support from the King Center, Prillaman will next analyze the impact of a government-partnered pilot program that aims to foster ties between self-help groups and local representatives. She will study whether these connections increase the likelihood that women will rally behind political issues and how elected officials respond.

“The fact that women in India don’t engage politically within their communities is an example of their social isolation and their lack of representation more broadly,” says Prillaman, who is currently writing a book about India’s political gender gap and the policies needed to overcome it. “It also means that men dictate the structure of goods and services.” She notes that prior research has shown that, when women engage in politics, they often invest in different things, like access to water and fuel, than men.

Through conversations with the women she studies, Prillaman has also found a surprising reason for why they become politically active.

“When women join these groups, they realize they have a shared struggle—especially around threats of domestic violence and a desire for greater agency and representation,” she says. “They build solidarity as women and make demands on government in the hopes that it will change the power dynamics in their household.”

At an early age, discovering a passion for research

Prillaman’s passion for India—part of a broader focus on social policy in South Asia—goes back to childhood. Her grandfather, a political scientist, had lived in and written about India. Treasures from his time there dotted her family home.

It wasn’t until her junior year at Texas A&M University that Prillaman settled on political science and a career in academia. To help pay for her education, she took a job working as a research assistant for a political science professor. Within six months of starting the data collection job, Prillaman was co-authoring with the professor a study on tax incentives for U.S. businesses that was published in the Journal of Politics when she was just 24 years old.

The exposure to research, she says, changed the trajectory of her life. “I had always been interested in development and I had always liked math, but did not realize until then that it was so clearly linked to politics and international relations,” says Prillaman.

Knowing now that she wanted to study social policy in developing countries, Prillaman went on to earn a PhD in government from Harvard in 2017. After two years at the University of Oxford as a Prize Postdoctoral Research Fellow, she joined Stanford’s faculty.

On top of her research and teaching, Prillaman is eager to mentor undergraduates. With support from the King Center, she is giving Stanford undergraduates the opportunity to conduct field research with her this summer in India.

“My hope is that, through the same kind of early exposure to research that I had, students will learn something about themselves and their potential to have a real-world impact on issues they care about,” says Prillaman.

Seeking impact beyond the developing world

Discovering a passion for research was seminal for Prillaman, but her first visit to India as a doctoral student in 2014 also proved life-altering.

“The diversity of the country was so exciting,” says Prillaman, who went there to work for Rohini Pande, one of the world’s leading economists on the study of gender and development. “I remember thinking there isn’t a single question that I want to study that I could not do here.”

The experience laid the groundwork for her extensive work on gender-related political participation and other challenges women face in the developing world. It also led to other research centered on bringing more rural women, especially those who are young and unmarried, into India’s workforce and helping them stay there.

“India has the second-lowest labor force participation by women in the G20 and it’s declining,” says Prillaman. “We don’t yet fully understand why, but it runs counter to our intuition about what should be happening in India.”

In research beyond India, Prillaman is working with a team of academics and government officials to examine political participation by women and other underrepresented groups in Nepal after the country’s 2017 democratization.

Ultimately, Prillaman’s goal is to identify strategies for empowering women that can be adapted globally. Her ongoing insights into the role of trained facilitators in helping women in India’s self-help groups recognize their shared political identity—and find solidarity in their experiences as women—promise to be especially instructive.

“In my mind,” she says, “fundamental questions about how power dynamics in the household might yield gender inequalities in political participation span all patriarchal cultures, which means they span all cultures.”