Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology and Marketing, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Marketing; Co-Director of the Center on the Science of Diversity
One could argue that there’s never been a better time to be a woman in American politics. In the 2018 midterm elections, a record number of women were voted into Congress. Meanwhile, a whopping 95% of voters now say that they would vote for a woman for president—an all-time high—and research has shown increased acceptance of women in politics overall.
Yet the fact remains that women are still underrepresented in the highest levels of government. To psychologists Galen Bodenhausen, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School, and Ryan Lei of Haverford College, this suggests that bias against female candidates is still significant.
“One possible interpretation [of the evidence] is that we’ve gotten beyond sexism in how we evaluate political candidates,” says Bodehausen. “But it seemed to us that the story might be more complicated than that. It may be that those biases are still there, but are more latent now, and only emerge under certain conditions.”
In particular, Bodenhausen and Lei wondered if the glass ceiling might reappear when people evaluate candidates on issues like the economy, where there are deeply embedded stereotypes that men are more capable than women.
So they designed an experiment to test whether voters’ perceptions of the economy would influence how favorably they viewed female political candidates. They found that, regardless of party, women and men vying for office were on equal footing when the economy was thought to be strong. But in troubled economic times, women’s fortunes took a tumble—a trend driven by men’s belief that women are less skilled at handling fiscal issues.
To Bodenhausen, the study shows that stereotypes remain powerful, even as cultural attitudes shift. “Gender stereotypes are more dynamic than people often think,” he explains. “They don’t necessarily show themselves in every circumstance. When the right buttons get pressed, then they come much more prominently to the forefront and can contaminate our thinking in nefarious ways.”
To test how the economic forecast influences voter perceptions of female candidates, Bodenhausen and Lei recruited 183 online study participants—all eligible voters, who disclosed their party affiliations at the beginning of the study.
The participants were randomly assigned to read one of two articles: one presented the US economy as strong and stable, while the other characterized its outlook as weak and shaky.
Next, participants were shown an ostensibly unrelated political ad for a candidate running for US Senate. Once again, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: some saw an ad for a female candidate, while the rest saw an identical ad for a male candidate.
The candidate’s party always matched the study participant’s stated party affiliation, so Democrats saw ads for Democrats, and Republicans saw ads for Republicans.
Among participants who viewed the US economy as weak, female candidates were viewed less favorably by a margin of about half a point on the seven-point scale.
Then, participants rated from one to seven how strongly they agreed with a series of statements about the candidate’s personal qualities, including their credibility, trustworthiness, impressiveness, and leadership potential. They also rated whether they thought the candidate was electable.
Bodenhausen and Lei took participants’ ratings of candidates’ personal qualities and combined them into a single impression rating. They found some good news and some not-so-good news for female candidates.
The good news: There was no bias against women when participants viewed the economy as strong.
But among participants who viewed the US economy as weak, female candidates were viewed less favorably by a margin of about half a point on the seven-point scale.
And, tellingly, women were also viewed as less electable when the economy was weak.
The researchers wanted to understand more precisely why voters seemed less inclined toward women candidates when they saw the economy as weak.
They had a few ideas. Research has shown that, in times of perceived threat, voters become more conservative overall, and conservative ideology has been linked to more skeptical views of women in nontraditional roles, such as leadership positions.
Another possibility: strong cultural stereotypes about “men’s issues” (defense, the economy) and “women’s issues” (health care, education) might make voters less confident in women’s ability to navigate complex fiscal challenges. “This is more of a standard stereotyping story—people have particular stereotypes about women and about men, and those stereotypes can become salient or activated in particular contexts,” Bodenhausen says.
To test these two possible explanations, the researchers recruited 352 eligible voters to complete the same experiment with a few changes. As before, participants read an article that presented the economy either as strong or weak, then saw an ad for either a female or male Senate candidate, and rated the candidate.
This time, though, the researchers added several new questions designed to test both the “conservative shift” and stereotype hypotheses. Specifically, participants rated how competently they thought the candidate could handle issues including health care, education, civil rights, income inequality, economic stability, and domestic security. Participants were also asked to rate their level of agreement with conservative ideology both before and after reading the article about the economy.
Just as in the first study, women candidates were evaluated less favorably when participants perceived the economy to be weak. This study also revealed that this effect was largely driven by men: Men’s average ratings of female candidates fell more than half a point (.64) when they read about an unstable economy, while female participants’ ratings weren’t affected by economic instability at all.
“It’s a very familiar pattern with all kinds of social change. It takes a while until the gains are really consolidated.”
It turned out that a conservative shift wasn’t to blame for declining views of women; Bodenhausen and Lei found no evidence that participants veered to the right after reading about a weak economy.
But stereotypes did play a role. When men saw the economy as weak, they viewed female candidates as less adept at handling “masculine” issues, a perception that caused them to evaluate women less favorably overall. Women, on the other hand, saw female candidates as equally capable on “male” issues regardless of whether they saw the economy as weak or strong.
After the 2016 presidential election, competing narratives emerged. In one version of the story, Hillary Clinton lost an election she was expected to win because she didn’t persuasively speak to the economic anxieties of voters in the industrial Midwest. In the other, she lost because of sexism.
To Bodenhausen, this research shows that those two stories may be one and the same. In other words, sexism could explain, in part, why Clinton’s economic message didn’t resonate. “There’s really no reason why these would have to be mutually exclusive considerations, and I think our research suggests that they do dovetail and feed off each other in some ways,” he explains.
Ultimately, there is reason for both optimism and frustration about the prospects of female politicians. While women running for office may have a smaller disadvantage than in the past, “that success may be more tenuous” than people think, Bodenhausen says.
“It’s a very familiar pattern with all kinds of social change,” Bodenhausen explains. When cultural norms—like gender roles and expectations—begin to change, old beliefs don’t vanish overnight. Rather, periods of progress are sometimes followed by backsliding. “It takes a while until the gains are really consolidated.”