By Melissa Bell, PhD
Recent academic studies largely dismiss the idea that voters engage in direct bias against women candidates for public office based on their sex alone. My own examination, however, predicts that women running for office who violate gender norms with respect to marriage and especially motherhood will in fact receive lesser evaluations of their candidacies, particularly from voters who hold conservative beliefs about what should be the "proper role" for women.
My co-author Karen Kaufmann and I argue that female candidates should not be conceived of as a blunt category, and that sex-male or female-is a biological distinction, whereas gender pertains to personal characteristics and behaviors that either conform to, or violate broadly understood gender norms. We used a survey experiment to estimate the direct and conditional effects of gender traits and gender role beliefs on candidate evaluations.
Our results support the proposition that a candidate's marital and parental status can prime gender beliefs in voters' evaluation process. Voters may not have knee-jerk reactions to candidates based solely on the fact that they are female. But a woman candidate who has chosen not to marry and have children may violate prevailing gender norms, not only about family, but about womanhood as well. Voters may punish her for these violations in very direct ways - such as by choosing to support a rival candidate.
Our research shows that single women without children appear to be particularly disadvantaged in electoral politics, and especially so in legislative districts or states that house disproportionately high numbers of conservative voters who hold traditional predispositions regarding gender roles.
Women in general - and certain kinds of women - also may opt out of running or be dissuaded from running in districts where their lifestyle choices do not conform to constituents' values.
Any notion that direct gender bias is inconsequential should be revisited in light of these findings. When it comes to seeking public office, all women are not created equal, and there are good reasons to think beyond a candidate's sex by focusing on the candidate's gendered traits as potential obstacles to increased female representation among our public officials.
Melissa Bell is an associate with the Benenson Strategy Group’s Washington D.C. office. Since joining the firm, Melissa has managed political projects that have shed new light on the values and characteristics that influence political choices for some of the most competitive races across the country.