Women candidates and winning mixes of femininity, masculinity

Liberal and conservative voters use gender stereotypes quite differently from one another, according to research by a University of California, Berkeley, political science graduate student that sheds some light on how and why women can effectively run for elected office in the United States.

In her paper, “Do Voters Prefer Well-Behaved Women? Experimental Tests of Competing Stereotypes,” Rachel Bernard explores responses to hypothetical political candidates’ biological sex and gender expression in conjunction with voter ideology.

The headline-grabbing presidential nomination bids of Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton notwithstanding, women hold just 19 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress, 24 percent of elected state legislative offices and no woman has shattered the Oval Office’s glass ceiling.

Talking tough

Bernhard finds that not only do conservative voters on average appear to strongly prefer political candidates who are masculine, male, or both, but the more conservative they are, the stronger their preferences.

Consider some of the Republican Party’s popular women politicians, such as former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer or Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor, lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and attractive soccer mom who earned a vice presidential spot on the 2008 Republican ticket with John McCain. Or think Carly Fiorina, the only woman contender in a current field of 15 Republicans vying for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination, whose poll numbers soared after a televised debate highlighted by her smack down with Donald Trump.

Bernhard acknowledges a wealth of existing psychological literature suggests people evaluate a political candidate’s leadership potential based on a fundamentally masculine set of criteria such as assertiveness, leadership and self-confidence. And research shows voters give attractive candidates an edge over those they find not so attractive. But, she says, it is critical to examine voter preferences in light of their ideology.

Women and more feminine candidates may fare just fine with a strongly liberal electorate, says Bernhard, who recently presented her research at a conference of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco. Think Hillary Clinton’s often-stated identification as a grandmother early on in her current presidential bid.

“Broadly, the results seem to indicate that liberal and conservative voters use gender stereotypes quite differently from one another,” she writes, adding that it is less clear whether that is due to attitudes about the proper roles for women and men, or because of a difference in views about the role of masculinity in leadership.

Bernhard says her study suggests one potential reason that more feminine Republican women may rationally choose not to run: knowing they face odds that women in the Democratic Party do not.

She theorizes that more masculine women candidates may do better with conservative voters than their more feminine counterparts because conservative voters tend to embrace more traditional gender roles and prefer that women stay out of politics. Alternatively, other studies have suggested that conservatives be more threat-oriented and favor stronger, more aggressive candidates.

On the other hand, Democrats field more women political candidates, who may benefit from stereotypes that women are stronger than men in areas such as health care or education, issues that are often key elements of Democratic Party platforms.

In a way, women candidates with the Democratic Party may have an easier road than Republican women, she says: “They don’t have to walk this line between being tough and almost anti-woman to get elected by their primary base.”

Don’t stereotype stereotypes

Bernhard cautions there is much more work needed in order to understand conscious and unconscious voter behaviors, and that stereotyping has long played key roles in culture and politics.

All societies segregate gender roles based on sex, she notes in her paper, so stereotyping should be understood not as inherently negative, but a process of categorization and organization that creates gender roles.

“The takeaway,” Bernhard says, “is the information people think is relevant to choosing a good leader is more complicated than anyone realized.”

Research details

For her research, Bernhard drew from a survey of 2,666 online respondents contacted through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online forum for researchers.  In a series of experiments, respondents were shown the profile of a single, hypothetical candidate for an unspecified political office that included:

  • The candidate’s biography with either traditionally masculine or feminine backgrounds and habits, such as Little League coach and owner of a moving service or literacy program volunteer and owner of a cleaning service
  • A generic, gender-neutral party platform and description of their political experience that never varies.
  • An obviously male or female candidate, with a portrait-style photo of each wearing a blue-colored shirt or a pink-colored shirt to exaggerate the candidate’s gender normativity or non-normativity, or a control questionnaire with no photo.

To check whether the experiment worked, respondents were asked to check at least five of 40 boxes listing feminine and masculine characteristics that they felt described the candidate, and how likely they would be to vote for the candidate. They also were asked a series of demographic questions, including their own sex and ideological identification.

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