How outdated notions about gender and leadership are shaping the 2020 presidential raceDownload the report
American voters are ready for a woman president.
(We just don’t know we are.)
Now we need to set aside outdated notions that women are not as presidential or electable.
How ready are we for a woman president?
In this section, the term “voters” refers to registered voters in the United States.
Voters don’t think America is ready for a woman president.1
Only 16% of voters believe most Americans are “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a woman president.
So voters think it will be harder for a woman to win.
A majority of voters think it will be harder for a woman to win the 2020 presidential election. And 88% of voters who think this say it’s because “many Americans aren’t ready to elect a woman president.”
But voters are getting it wrong: America is ready.
In actuality, a majority of voters say they are “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a woman president. They just don’t realize that other voters are ready, too.
What does it mean to be “presidential” and “electable”?
In this section, our analysis focuses on registered voters who identified as Democrats or Independents and their perceptions of the candidates running in the Democratic primary.
Who voters see as “presidential” and “electable” matters.
Two of the biggest predictors of whether Democratic and Independent voters intend to vote for a man or a woman in the Democratic primary:
- How presidential they think the candidates are
- How electable they think the candidates are2
Almost half of these voters think the men candidates are more presidential and electable. And very few voters see it the other way—less than 15% rate the women candidates higher on these traits.3
The problem is: “presidential” and “electable” are outdated notions that tend to favor men and disadvantage women.
The likeability effect:
Democratic and Independent voters are more likely to think candidates are presidential and electable if they see them as likeable—and voters think the men in the race are more likeable than the women. In fact, “likeability” is the attribute that most strongly predicts whether a candidate is viewed as presidential as well as electable.
These findings track closely to social science research that shows we tend to dislike women leaders. Because we expect women to be kind and communal, we sometimes like them less when they’re assertive or forceful. In contrast, we expect men to act like this, so they don’t face the same pushback.4
This “likeability penalty” may be particularly damaging to the women running for president, who need to be bold and ambitious to campaign effectively—but risk seeming unlikeable when they do.5
What presidential has always looked like:
Since all of our U.S. presidents have been men, it may be harder for voters to see a woman as presidential—and therefore harder to believe that a woman can win.6
There is also a common stereotype that men are better leaders than women. As a result, women candidates may need to work harder to “prove” they are presidential.7
The electability conundrum:
One of the main reasons voters say it will be harder for a woman to win in 2020 is because they don’t think Americans are ready for a woman president. But Americans are ready—across demographics, a majority of voters say they are “very ready” or “extremely ready.”
This false belief may also influence how people vote: the less ready Democratic and Independent voters think other Americans are, the less likely they are to choose a woman as their top candidate.
In contrast, voters are far more enthusiastic about voting for a woman when they rightly think Americans are ready.8
2x as likely to vote for a woman
Democratic and Independent voters are almost twice as likely to vote for a woman in the primary when they think Americans are ready for a woman president.9
If we set aside these outdated notions, we can level the playing field.
What if voters set aside their outdated notions of what it means to be presidential and electable? If the men and women candidates were seen as equally presidential and electable, we could level the playing field. The share of votes going to the women would increase substantially—and the women and men front-runners would be neck and neck in the Democratic primary.10
When men and women candidates are seen as equally presidential and electable, the proportion of votes for women candidates increases by 34%.
A closer look at what voters think
More on how ready voters are for a woman president:
When you look at which American voters are most enthusiastic about a woman president, the demographic trends align with patterns we have seen before. Democrats are far more ready for a woman president than Republicans. Black women are more ready than white men. And younger voters are more ready than older voters.11,12
More on why voters think it will be harder for a woman to win:
Voters who think it will be harder for a woman to win the 2020 presidential election cite two primary reasons: “many Americans aren’t ready to elect a woman president” and “women who run for president have to do more to prove themselves than men.”13,14
Both themes also show up frequently in survey participants’ open-ended explanations for why women will have a more difficult time getting votes.15
How voters think aspects of a candidate’s identity will affect his or her chances of winning:
A third of American voters think it will be harder for a person of color to win the presidential election in 2020. Close to half think it will be harder for a woman to win. And more than half of voters think it will be harder for a gay candidate to win.
This makes sense, given what Americans have previously seen: A Black man served two terms as president. A woman ran for president as her party’s nominee. Yet an openly gay candidate has never been a major party nominee.
Interestingly, age is not an issue for most American voters—only about 20% think being younger or older will impact a candidate’s ability to win. Perhaps voters are less concerned about age because we’ve seen presidents across the age spectrum.
About the study
LeanIn.Org surveyed 2,052 registered voters using the Ipsos KnowledgePanel.16
The survey was conducted from August 7 to 12, 2019, and uses a probability sample of registered voters in the United States, which is considered the gold standard in survey research. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 2.2 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.
We conducted this survey to examine if and how gender dynamics are playing out in the 2020 presidential election. We’re sharing these findings to raise awareness of underlying factors that may be influencing voters’ perceptions of the candidates.
About our approach
We surveyed a probability sample of 2,052 registered voters in the United States, with an oversample of Black and Latinx voters. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 2.2 percentage points at a 95% confidence level.
We examined a broad range of attributes that are commonly used to evaluate presidential candidates, from the ability to stand up to adversaries to intelligence. All respondents, regardless of political party, rated the two top-polling Democratic men (Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders) and the two top-polling Democratic women (Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris). If respondents indicated they would not vote for one of these four candidates in the Democratic primary, they also rated the attributes of their preferred candidate from a list of six other top-polling candidates at the ...
How gender bias impacts women candidates
Our See Maya Run video highlights the challenges women candidates face up and down the ballot—with people more likely to question their qualifications, criticize their looks, or simply dislike them.Get the facts
Hear that? Say this.
Our interactive tool recommends what to say when you hear biased reactions to women candidates like, “I don’t think a woman can win” or “I just don’t like her.”Get started