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Women running for office face obstacles that men don’t

People are more likely to question their qualifications, criticize their looks, and even dislike them. Elections should be about deciding who’s right for the job. Gender bias gets in the way of that. This election, let’s #GetOutTheBias.

“They’re running for office. And they’re about to have very different experiences.”

Women candidates are often held to different standards1 than men and judged more harshly.2 Because of this, it can be harder for women.

“Maya will have to work harder to prove she’s qualified…”
“…But if she promotes herself too much, she’ll be disliked.”

We tend to underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s.3 Women get less credit for their accomplishments and more blame for mistakes. As a result, women have to work harder than men to prove that they’re qualified.4

There’s another catch: Women face pushback if they’re seen as too self-promotional. Men don’t; we expect them to promote their accomplishments.5

This double bind puts women candidates in a tough spot. If they don’t talk up their background, their accomplishments may be overlooked. But if they do, voters may like them less.

“Her looks may be criticized. Her voice, too.”

The media focuses more on the appearance of women candidates than they do on men’s.6 We all do. A woman candidate’s hair, clothes, face, and body are subject to scrutiny.7 Whether those comments are critical or flattering, they take attention away from what matters: her ideas and experience.

“If she’s a mom, people will ask, ‘Who’s with the kids?’”
“If she’s not a mom, they’ll question that, too.”

Maternal bias is the strongest type of gender bias.8 When women become mothers, we often fall into the trap of thinking that they can’t be fully committed to both work and family.9 This comes into play on the campaign trail. When mothers run for office, we ask, “Who’s taking care of their kids?” because of the strong cultural belief that they should be at home.10

Women candidates who stray away from gender norms pay a price, too. Voters generally prefer women who are married with children over women who are not.11

“She’ll have a harder time getting positive news coverage.”

The media can—and often do—fall into the same bias traps as everyone else. In elections, that translates to women getting less positive media coverage than men.12 Considering the impact that media can have on voters’ perceptions of the candidates, this is a problem.

“There’s a good chance she’ll be called ‘uninspiring.’”
“Unelectable.”

There’s a stereotype that men are naturally better leaders than women.13 Qualities like strength, courage, and decisiveness are typically seen as masculine.14 By contrast, we often see women as caring and collaborative—traits that are not as strongly associated with leadership.15

The fact that the vast majority of political leaders have been men bolsters this dynamic. Take the presidency— it’s harder for us to imagine a woman president because there’s never been a woman president.16 That may be why we’re sometimes less likely to think women can win. Fortunately, this will change as more women run for office and our image of what a successful politician looks like expands.

“Too ambitious.”

Because of stereotypical expectations that women should be selfless and giving, they often face criticism when they appear to be “ambitious” or “out for themselves”17—for example, when they run for political office. People are less likely to vote for women candidates when they perceive them as power-seeking.18 Men are not penalized for this. We expect men to be driven and ambitious, and tend to think well of them when they show those qualities. We see it as “confident” and “strong.”19

“Too emotional.”

Women are often seen as emotional, while men tend to be viewed as rational. This dynamic can lead people to see a woman with an opinion—especially if she expresses it with conviction—as being excessively emotional. Men rarely get the same criticism.20 This matters because we expect our leaders to be measured, not erratic.

“No matter what she does, people will say, ‘I just don’t like her.’”

Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. That means that when a man is successful, people often like him more. But when a woman is successful, people often like her less.21 This matters in politics. Women candidates have to be seen as both qualified and likeable, while men just have to be seen as qualified—likeability is a bonus for them.22

“Depending on her race, faith, or other things about her, she could face far more pushback.”
  • race
  • faith
  • physical ability
  • ethnicity
  • sexuality
  • gender identity
  • physical ability
  • ethnicity
  • sexuality
  • gender identity
  • race
  • faith
  • sexuality
  • gender identity
  • race
  • faith
  • physical ability
  • ethnicity

Women also face bias due to their race, sexual orientation, a disability, or other aspects of their identity. This compounded discrimination can be significantly greater than the sum of its parts. For example, women of color who run for office often face bias for their gender and for their race. Compared to white women, women of color have a harder time getting party support,23 and Black women in particular have a harder time raising money.24

We all have unconscious biases and need to do our part

We all have unconscious biases, and we all need to do our part to counter them. That means questioning our snap judgments and pushing ourselves to do better.

Research shows that we make fairer decisions when we’re asked to explain our thinking.25 So reflect on your reactions to women running for office. Encourage your family and friends to do the same. That can be as simple as asking, “I’m curious—what makes you think that?” when a friend says something critical. Another strategy is to ask, “Would you have the same response if a man did the same thing?” The answer will often be no.

Elections are about you getting to choose who’s right for the job.

Don’t let bias get in your way—or hers.

Help us #GetOutTheBias

Bias holds women back at work too

Gender bias isn’t just an issue in elections. It also affects women in the workplace. Bias makes it harder for women to get hired and promoted, and it negatively impacts their day-to-day work experiences.

To help combat this, we developed 50 Ways to Fight Bias with gender experts from the Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab and the diversity and inclusion strategy consulting firm Paradigm. This new card-based activity includes 50 specific examples of gender bias at work and research-backed recommendations for what to do.

Learn more about 50 Ways Watch the 50 Ways video series

These 9 cards serve as a quick primer on the bias that women face at work—and on the campaign trail.

Footnotes

  1. Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto, “The Price of Power: Power-Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, no. 7 (2010): 923-36. doi: 10.1037/e506052012-245; Monica C. Schneider and Angela L. Bos, “The Application of Social Role Theory to the Study of Gender in Politics,” Advances in Political Psychology 40, no. 1 (2019): 192-202. doi: 10.1111/pops.12573.
  2. David Paul and Jessi L. Smith, “Subtle Sexism? Examining Vote Preferences When Women Run Against Men for the Presidency,” Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 29, no. 4 (2008): 451-476. doi: 10.1080/15544770802092576.
  3. Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (New York: NYU Press, 2014); Laurie A. Rudman, Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, Peter Glick, and Julie E. Phelan, “Reactions to Vanguards: Advances in Backlash Theory,” in Patricia Devine and Ashby Plant, eds., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 45 (Burlington: Academic Press, 2012): 167-227.
  4. Williams and Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work.
  5. Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and Laurie A. Rudman, “Disruptions in Women’s Self-Promotion: The Backlash Avoidance Model,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 34, no. 2 (2010): 186-202. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2010.01561.x; Rudman, “Self-Promotion as a Risk Factor for Women”; Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Glick, and Phelan, “Reactions to Vanguards.”
  6. Anna North, “America's Sexist Obsession with What Women Politicians Wear, Explained,” Vox, December 03, 2018, https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/12/3/18107151/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-eddie-scarry-women-politics; Kira Sanbonmatsu, “Women of Color in American Politics,” Political Parity, https://www.politicalparity.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Parity-Research-Women-Of-Color.pdf.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Shelley Correll et al., “Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology 112, no. 5 (2007): 1297-1339, https://sociology.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/getting_a_job-_is_there_a_motherhood_penalty.pdf.
  9. Joan C. Williams, “Hitting the Maternal Wall,” Academe 90, no. 6 (2004): 16-20, https://www.provost.umich.edu/faculty/family/resources/pdf/Hitting-the-Maternal-Wall-Williams.pdf.
  10. “Modern Family: How Women Candidates Can Talk About Politics, Parenting, and Their Personal Lives,” Barbara Lee Family Foundation, http://oe9e345wags3x5qikp6dg012.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/BL_Memo_Final-3.22.17.pdf.
  11. Dawn L. Teele et al., “The Ties That Double Bind: Social Roles and Women’s Underrepresentation in Politics,” American Political Science Review 112, no. 3 (2018). doi: 10.1017/S0003055418000217.
  12. Kira Sanbonmatsu, “Media Coverage of Women Candidates,” Political Parity, https://www.politicalparity.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Parity-Research-Women-Media.pdf; Alexander Frandsen and Aleszu Bajak, “Women on the 2020 Campaign Trail Are Being Treated More Negatively by the Media,” Storybench, April 24, 2019, http://www.storybench.org/women-on-the-2020-campaign-trail-are-being-treated-more-negatively-by-the-media/.
  13. Lisa Feldman Barrett and Eliza Bliss-Moreau, “She’s Emotional. He’s Having a Bad Day: Attributional Explanations for Emotion Stereotypes,” Emotion 9, no. 5 (2009): 649-658; Carolyn Centeno Milton, “Psychological Research Shows How Biased We Are When It Comes To Female Leadership: An Interview With Madeline Heilman,” Forbes, May 15, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolyncenteno/2018/05/15/psychological-research-shows-how-biased-we-are-when-it-comes-to-female-leadership/#4c21453a1023.
  14. A.M. Koenig et al., “Are leader stereotypes masculine? A meta-analysis of three research paradigms,” Psychological Bulletin 137, no. 4 (2011): 616-642. doi: 10.1037/a0023557.
  15. Madeline E. Heilman, “Gender stereotypes and workplace bias,” Research in Organizational Behavior 32 (2012): 113-35. doi: 10.1016/j.riob.2012.11.003; Koenig et al., “Are leader stereotypes masculine?”
  16. Sanbonmatsu, “Women of Color in American Politics” Political Parity; Jessi L. Smith et al., “No Place for a Woman: Evidence for Gender Bias in Evaluations of Presidential Candidates,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 29, no. 3 (2007): 225-233. doi: 10.1080/01973530701503069.
  17. Laurie A. Rudman, “Self-Promotion as a Risk Factor for Women: The Costs and Benefits of Counterstereotypical Impression Management,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 3 (1998): 629-645, http://search.committee.module.rutgers.edu/pdf/Rudman_self_promoing.pdf; Moss-Racusin and Rudman, “Disruptions in Women’s Self-Promotion”; Heilman, “Gender stereotypes and workplace bias”; Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Glick, and Phelan, “Reactions to Vanguards.”
  18. Brescoll and Okimoto, “The Price of Power.”
  19. Nosek et al., “Pervasiveness and Correlates of Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes,” European Review of Social Psychology 18 (2007): 36-88; Koenig et al., “Are leader stereotypes masculine?”
  20. Barrett and Bliss-Moreau, “She’s Emotional. He’s Having a Bad Day”; Milton, “Psychological Research Shows How Biased We Are When It Comes To Female Leadership; Victoria L. Brescoll, “Leading with their hearts? How gender stereotypes of emotion lead to biased evaluations of female leaders,” The Leadership Quarterly 27 (2016): 415-428. Doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2016.02.00.
  21. M.E. Heilman and T.G. Okimoto, “Why Are Women Penalized for Success at Male Tasks? The Implied Communality Deficit,” Journal of Applied Psychology 92, no. 1 (2007): 81-92; Madeline E. Heilman et al., “Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, no. 3 (2004): 416-27.
  22. “Politics Is Personal: Keys to Likeability and Electability for Women, A Barbara Lee Family Foundation Research Memo,” Barbara Lee Family Foundation, April 2016, https://www.barbaraleefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/BLFF-Likeability-Memo-FINAL.pdf.
  23. Sanbonmatsu, “Women of Color in American Politics.”
  24. Ibid.
  25. Shelley Correll, “Reducing Gender Biases in Modern Workplaces: A Small Wins Approach to Organizational Change,” Gender & Society 31, no. 6 (December 1, 2017): 725-50, https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/reducing-gender-biases-modern-workplaces-small-wins-approach.