Nichole M. Bauer Department of Political Science & Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University
Is it really harder to be a woman in politics?
During one particularly heated moment of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Senator Amy Klobuchar quipped that if 37-year old South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg were a woman he would not be on the debate stage. Klobuchar argued that women in politics are held to a “higher standard.” It’s easy to dismiss Klobuchar’s comments as political snark, but Klobuchar is correct. My book, The Gendered Qualifications Gap: Why Women Must be Better than Men to Win Political Office, argues and shows that women have to be better than men to win political office.
The problem for women is that ideas about political leadership are conflated with stereotypes about masculinity. Voters want leaders to be strong, aggressive, and assertive. Men appear to naturally fit this image, women do not. These gendered ideas about who can be a political leader affect how voters evaluate seemingly gender-neutral aspects of woman’s political qualifications, such as her political experience. I test how gendered qualification gaps emerge using content analyses of campaign news coverage and candidate websites and a number of survey experiments. The experiments conducted ask voters to rate the skills and qualifications of hypothetical female and male candidates under different types of campaign match-ups. I find that women consistently have to be perceived as more qualified than men in order to achieve parity at the polls. For example, one experiment asked participants to rate how many skills a hypothetical female candidate running against a male candidate had. The woman was rated as having more skills than the male candidate—a finding that seems great for women. But, this high skills rating did not translate into more electoral support. A highly skilled woman breaks even with a less skilled man.
The campaign process continually reinforces the notion of politics as a masculine space that is natural for men to be in, and casts women as political anomalies. For example, I analyzed the news coverage about candidate qualifications that women and men received in the 2016 Senate elections in the U.S. This analysis required reading some 3,000 news articles. Women received less coverage about their political qualifications compared to men. The women and men who ran for the Senate in 2016 were not any less qualified than the men who ran for the Senate. Women, however, did receive ample coverage of their husbands (or lack thereof), their children, and their favorite recipes. These gaps were so striking that I analyzed how these Senate candidates talked about their qualifications on their campaign websites to see if women were just more likely to talk about their families and less likely to talk about their work as Attorneys General, state legislators, and policymakers. They aren’t. Women do not sell themselves short in campaign messaging.
The implications of the qualification gap are expansive. Research consistently highlights the importance of having more women in political office—yet, most democratic countries under-represent women. Women legislators and policymakers are more likely to advance policies that improve the lives of women and other marginalized communities, such as supporting equal pay law. What’s more, women are just more productive lawmakers compared to men. Women get involved in politics to produce better public policy not advance their careers. And, the public views decision-making bodies that represent women as more legitimate compared to those that exclude women. Holding women to steep qualification standards makes it more difficult to have political institutions that adequately represent women and produce good public policy.
So, how do we get more women in elected office? The final chapters of my book test different ways of closing the gender qualifications gap by trying to reduce the biased decision-making processes at the voter level. I find that engaging in shameless self-promotion, a task that women sometimes shy away from, does not hurt women at all. I also find that reminding voters that women are very, very good at their jobs, and men might not be so great at their jobs helps too (Of course, some men in politics are great. I’m sure). These strategies of self-promotion are just a start for women. Closing the gender qualification gap also requires voters, party leaders, and other political gatekeepers to check their implicit biases – a task easier said than done. The findings in this work apply not only to women in politics, but to women in any male-dominated field or industry. When it comes to most aspects of public life, be it the board room or the ballot, women have to be better than men to succeed.