Professor Q&A: Politics and gender

by Maria Brenes | 9/24/14 6:59pm

In her recent memoir “Off the Sidelines,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ’88, D-NY, describes being treated differently than her male counterparts in Congress. We wrote to government professor Deborah Jordan Brooks, who has studied gender stereotypes in politics, and asked her about barriers female politicians face.

In her book, Gillibrand says that in women, ambition is often seen as a bad quality. But in men, especially in male politicians, it is not. How is ambition perceived differently in males and females?

DJB: Many people, including many women politicians, believe that they are held to different, or higher, standards than their male counterparts. It doesn’t help that many sources (the media, political consultants and other candidates) tell them that it is the case. And research into how women leaders fare in the business world, academia and society at large suggests that women do face some disproportionate challenges in non-political settings.There is some face validity to the general idea.

However, my 2013 book, “He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes do Not Harm Women Candidates,” shows that people hold male and female candidates to the same standards of behavior, and that women candidates are also not harmed by disproportionately negative perceptions of them at the outset. The playing field for women candidates when it comes to getting elected is remarkably level.

For my book, I did not study ambition per se, but I used a series of experiments to show how voters reacted to a number of behaviors along those lines, such as acting tough, getting angry, and acting non-empathetic. I found absolutely no evidence that women politicians pay a greater price with voters than male politicians for engaging in any of those behaviors. Despite prevalent conventional wisdom that it is harder for women candidates, I find that people hold male and female politicians to the same standards. I find that it is really tough to win over voters, but there is no evidence at all that it is tougher for women to do so, at least in the modern era.

Now might there have been more challenging standards for women politicians in the past? That is possible; there are theories that suggest that discrimination will stay in place until a critical mass is reached (some findings suggest that having below 15 percent women might cause them to be subject to more detrimental stereotypes). Might there be different expectations for women running at the presidential level? Perhaps, because women may still be “tokens” in that arena with a mass of “0” women who have previously governed from the Oval Office. Might the media treat women candidates more harshly as rule? It looks like the answer is “no” to that question; recent research by Danny Hayes and Jen Lawless is showing that women candidates face a relatively even playing field when it comes to media coverage.

Might women in Congress face penalties vis-a-vis their peers in Congress for acting in stereotypically masculine ways, as they try to conduct the daily business of Congress? That is quite possible. The business literature is pretty compelling on the point that women leaders often have to tone down “masculine” behaviors to be sufficiently liked to get ahead, and can sometimes face a “double bind” where they have to show that they are tough to be promoted into leadership positions, but can be disliked by their peers and superiors for acting insufficiently “feminine.” The fact is that the work of legislating in Congress has a great deal more in common with the business world, than the world of electoral politics.

Gillibrand may very well experience a daily work environment in Congress in which she has to work harder, or be better, or act differently, in order to get her work done than she would if she were male. But the good news is that my research about voters shows that people expect political women at the legislative level, especially those who have already served in office, to be leaders, rather than “ladies.” And that is a much more optimistic story for women than the conventional wisdom would suggest.


Is it important that women like Gillibrand speak out about discrimination/sexism in the workplace, especially on Capitol Hill? Why?

DJB: Research on gender and business has been fairly compelling that women often face challenges as managers and leaders that their male colleagues do not. There are sometimes ways around such hurdles, but It is entirely possible that congressional women face overt sexism, and any host of less overt behaviors from colleagues that make it disproportionately more challenging to get their work done in that environment. And there is no question that many or even most women in leadership positions even today can describe at least some personal experiences where they faced obviously sexist behavior. I think it very important for women to call attention to sexist behavior, in part, because it allows other women to more readily identify similar situations they may face as a problem with the environment, rather with them. But it is also a difficult and brave move, because the first reaction of many observers when accusations of sexist behavior is made is to first try look for fault with the accuser. More than a few people will tend to find it easier to choose to believe and an accuser is being over-sensitive — or even lying — rather than to accept that even women in power positions still sometimes have to contend with such boorishness by some male leaders in workplaces today.


Do you believe people are more perceptive to the physical aspect of female politicians than that of their male counterparts?

DJB: Little research speaks direction to the matter of whether appearance matters more for female candidates than for male candidates, and I did not study that question directly, so I cannot draw conclusions about it. But assumptions that attention to appearance will necessarily hurt female candidates does not hold up under scrutiny. Indeed, standing out as a unique individual in a sea of seemingly-identical male politicians may help women candidates to stand out and seem relatable, perhaps even when the focus involves critiques. Some women candidates try to turn it into an advantage, with descriptions of themselves as a “mom in tennis shoes” or as a “hockey mom,” or by wearing a brightly-colored suit to stand out in a sea of bland suits and red and navy blue striped ties. Being recognizable in politics can be a huge advantage to a candidate in politics, and so it is easy to imagine that when there is a focus on a woman candidate’s appearance, it might not necessarily always be to their disadvantage.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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