"The Burning Question"

The Burning Question

Are there still gender gaps in political attitudes toward women as emerging political players?

by Rebecca Evans
Associate Professor of Politics

With the candidacy of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, the idea of a gender gap in politics has gotten a lot of attention lately. Whether or not Hillary was elected as the first female U.S. president, women will continue to be significantly under-represented in American politics. Women constitute 20 out of 100 U.S. Senators, 84 out of 435 U.S. Representatives, and 6 out of 50 governors. The percentage of female mayors is 19%, and 24% of statewide elective offices are held by women. In global perspective, while the United States ranks highly in terms of gender equality on economic, education and health criteria, it does poorly in terms of political equality, coming in at No. 72 out of 145 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap Index.

It Takes a Woman

Explanations for the relatively slow progress in increasing the political representation of women in the United States focus on the power of incumbency and the effects of single-member districts. Yet recent scholarship shows that women candidates are competitive with men, concluding that the underrepresentation of women stems from the fact that fewer women run for elective office. Some scholars point to differences in political interest and ambition between men and women, citing a confidence gap and urging women to “lean in.” Other studies focus on women’s disadvantages in terms of fundraising and party support. These studies show that political party leaders are more likely to encourage men to run for office, and women find it harder to raise money because they are not plugged into the same donor networks as men. Yet others point to family constraints, arguing that these are more likely to discourage women than men and pointing to the tendency for women to wait until they are older to run for office or to run for local office where it is easier to balance work and family responsibilities.

Courting Women’s Votes

Although women lag behind men as candidates, women actually vote in larger numbers than men. In addition, women are less likely to be strong partisans and tend to decide on their vote closer to Election Day, so their vote has been heavily courted. As men—especially southern white men—began moving toward the Republican Party after 1980, the Democratic Party has increasingly come to rely on women voters. The Democratic Party has therefore fielded more female candidates, and party leaders have sought to portray their party as advancing women’s rights. Although there are fewer Republican women candidates, Republican Party leaders have worked to recruit more women to run for office and also seek to appeal to women voters.

Campaigning While Female

Because of persistent differences in how voters view men and women candidates, campaign strategies differ and women face different treatment as candidates. Men tend to be viewed more often as tough, assertive leaders on issues of crime, defense and foreign policy whereas women candidates tend to be associated with feminine traits and attributed expertise on social issues. Because voters generally tend to place a high premium on stereotypically masculine traits of toughness and strength, women candidates have to work harder to demonstrate their toughness. At the same time, however, women encounter a so-called “double bind”—a Catch-22 situation in which they are expected to demonstrate masculine traits without coming across as unfeminine or losing their likability. On the other hand, women candidates have a comparative advantage in terms of voters’ perceptions that they are more honest and compassionate, although women who fail to meet these expectations face even harsher criticism than men.

Looks Matter

Women are much more likely to face critical scrutiny because of their appearance. Both the media and voters tend to focus on women candidates’ dress, hairstyles, age and attractiveness much more than they do with male candidates. Not only does such a focus distract from substantive issues, it also allows women candidates to be negatively caricatured more easily than men. Women are sometimes criticized for being too attractive (with the insinuation that they lack substance) and other times for not being attractive enough.

Why Does It Matter?

As more women run for and win elected office, expectations about what political leaders should look like will change. Since women vary greatly in terms of the policies they support, influenced by factors such as race, ethnicity, class and party affiliation, gender equality in politics will not necessarily lead public policy in a particular direction but it will ensure that public policy is informed by a broader range of experiences and greater diversity of viewpoints.