Gender stereotypes — you know, “women are caring” and “men are tough” — probably do factor in to voters’ views of female political candidates, just not in the way you might think.

New research posits that people probably don’t automatically characterize female candidates as having stereotypical traits of over-emotionality, weakness, passivity and sensitivity just because they’re women. Rather, it happens when people’s stereotypes are activated, such as when a woman holds a baby, or is described as compassionate and caring.

In those circumstances, then, with a bias against feminine stereotypes, voters tend to view women as not having the qualifications needed to hold political office.

“Voters do not automatically use feminine stereotypes to judge female candidates,” wrote Nichole Bauer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, for the Scholars Strategy Network. “But attributing stereotypical feminine characteristics to women candidates does tend to activate gendered concepts that reduce people’s support for women running for office. As long as feminine stereotypes are not activated, female candidates actually tend to be evaluated more positively than male candidates.” 

For instance, just seeing a woman’s name on a ballot probably won’t make the voter think the candidate is weak. But reading a news article that describes the candidate as caring can increase the likelihood voters will ascribe feminine qualities to her.

Bauer, whose study on the subject was published by the journal Political Psychology, came to her conclusion after a two-part study: a survey experiment and an analysis of what happens when campaigns for U.S. House elections show feminine stereotypes in their ads.

The survey — where participants had to read a newspaper article describing candidates in both gendered and non-gendered ways — showed a limited effect on stereotypes, but the real-world analysis found something different. The review of real campaign ads from 2002 and 2004 — pairing advertising data with public opinion data — showed that when there was a high level of feminine references in ads, voters were nearly 15 percent less likely to vote for the woman candidate than if they saw ads that didn’t invoke feminine stereotypes.

It would seem, then, the lesson is that female political candidates are stronger politically when voters aren’t reminded that they’re actually women. The takeaway for female candidates, Bauer said, is “to be incredibly strategic in crafting and controlling their campaign image. As long as they avoid invoking feminine stereotypes, voters will evaluate them in nonstereotyped ways.”

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on issues of sexual...