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Are Voters Still Biased Against Female Candidates?

  • By Partner Editorials Sep 19, 2019, 12:33 pm4.7k pts

    The 2020 election is set to be an exciting one, to say the least, with a total of six women campaigning to be President of the United States.

    The last two years have seen groundbreaking shifts when it comes to women in politics in the U.S., with a total of 3,946 serving at either a state, federal, or legislative level. This is an incredible spike in women being represented in the government after what was a slow start in the 2010s.

    With gender roles officially done with, why are there still so many earth-shattering firsts in the world of politics? It would seem that it is time to re-examine how gender biases are doing in a world that claims gender doesn't play any sort of role anymore.

    Vying for the Oval Office has certainly been attempted by women before, starting with the trailblazer Victoria Woodhull back in 1872. It took a good 100 years for a woman to run for the highest office again as Shirley Chisholm, in 1972, was also the first woman of color to do so. Fast forward to 2016, both Carly Fiorina and the prominent Hilary Clinton were candidates for this most coveted position.

    Notwithstanding that women have taken this road-less-traveled before, it wasn't until 2018 that we saw a torrent of female candidates.

    Even though the glass ceiling was officially shattered decades ago, some argue that we still have to break it in our minds. While the Western world has been teaching that gender shouldn't play any role in getting a position, there still perhaps exists a subconscious bias.

    Even though we're equal on paper, most women will testify to this subtle bias, which whispers to people that men lead and women follow. This incongruity theory proposes that women leaders are somehow going against that age-old gender role, and they face a wall of criticism. It's battling a norm so deeply ingrained in the collective subconscious, it's like when you play roulette for money while being a pastor in Utah. This dissonance with tradition makes it hard for women to even raise the ranks to get in leadership positions, let alone achieve lasting success there, says Professor Eagly.

    Professor Eagly of Northwestern University spoke up about those subliminal expectations, pointing out that those stereotypes are still everywhere we look. They're implicit, she says, and we're not even aware that we're forming them even though we are officially hearing another narrative.

    When we make up our minds about people through the prism of those stereotypes, we create bias, Professor Eagly says. Gender-based stereotypes prevail more than any other in any culture because we observe male-female interactions every day. All those thousands of interactions get stored in us, and we immediately use them to classify people's characteristics through the sieve of gender.

    CAWP's Kelly Dittmar, a political science scholar, chimed in, saying that role expectations are what women vying for political office have to deal with. Professor Dittmar ascertains that everyone has an idea of how a woman should behave, and they cluster male and female traits into two separate spheres. For example, leadership isn't traditionally considered to be a female trait. Therefore, being a political leader and being a woman is by default seen as incongruous historically speaking, notes Professor Dittmar.

    All this has raised the question of electability, or rather, who is more apt to be elected even though they're a square peg.

    The CEO of the NGO American Association of University Women, Kim Churches, says that women have to put in twice the effort as their male counterparts.

    Women deal with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario, Churches says. This is because being too soft is judged as harshly as being too dominant. This is why her NGO is trying to lower gender disparity and help usher in policy changes.

    However, another female professor has a different view. Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a survey of her own on this topic between 2010 and 2014. More than 3,000 people were surveyed on their views regarding politics and gender stereotyping before and after the midterm elections. Professor Dolan's research found that some people did, indeed, have gender stereotypes. However, it seems that their beliefs didn't actually impact who they voted for, or did so only to a minimal extent. She found that it was first and foremost party affiliation that made people vote for their candidate, along with the period of incumbency.

    There is no causality, she says, in the relationship between voting and the gender of the nominee. People, Professor Dolan claims, don't vote for somebody just because of their gender, nor do they vote against a nominee because of their gender.

    Professor Dittmar protests the validity of that claim, pointing out that there are differing assumptions about male and female competencies. White men especially, she says, have an edge that no woman does. She used the example where now-president Donald Trump said then-candidate Hilary Clinton lacked strength as well as stamina. These are code words for gender bias, Prof Dittmar insists, that Trump highlighted on purpose to his advantage.

    Many characterized Hilary Clinton as bossy and cold, while male candidates of similar behavior were seen as resolute and clear-headed. Others commented that Hilary was held to a standard of her own, which was higher than for any of the male candidates. Likewise, the political baggage or past mistakes seemed to glide like water off of Trump's back, whereas Hilary's stuck to her like glue.

    Professor Dittmar says that her research also indicates that women pay a heavier price for any - perceived or actual - ethical violation.

    Professor Dolan, on the other hand, believes that we can't just boil down how a female candidate is treated just because she's female.

    However, this election cycle is different because there is finally a diverse group of females, and they're all battling each other.

    Finally, professors Dittmar and Dolan agree that this is exactly what will give depth to the perception of women in politics. They won't band together just because they're women, and various forms of female leadership are being represented.

    This is certainly progress, Professor Dolan says, and while there's a long way to go, just getting more women to run for office is a step in the right direction. Increased representation will be key to dissolving stereotypes and banishing bias over time, she concludes.

    Professor Eagly elaborates that we need evidence to change a stereotype. It's not enough to just be told men and women can do everything the other can; we need to see that in action. We also need to see that all the time, just as often as we saw the things that gave rise to a negative stereotype in the first place. If we have a woman president, she concludes, we'd have at least four years to look at one stereotype breaking and another being born.

    But every journey begins with a single step, and some small steps have already been made on this journey to the White House. The 11-year-old daughter of CEO Churches believes, she says, having women run for president is a completely normal thing. It would seem there is a chance for those roulette-playing Utah pastors, after all.