Everything you think you know about women and politics is wrong

There is so much conventional wisdom about women in politics that it is often hard to wade through what’s true and what’s simply taken as truth but is actually a baseless, outdated stereotype.  Part of the problem, at least at the national level, is that there just isn’t enough information to go on because only a handful of women have run for president – 13 women to be exact, dating back to 1872. The entire GOP field will probably be about that size come 2016, but I digress.

Much of theorizing around women in politics — whether they are judged more harshly on their appearance, have problems at the polls or struggle to convince voters of their authority – gets at why women have lagged behind men as officeholders, a gap that at the congressional level could take until 2121 to close.

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University,  has looked at the data and found that at least one bit of conventional wisdom about how family dynamics affect political ambition isn’t quite right.

According to her research, women are less likely than men to consider running for office, but that sentiment  isn’t affected greatly by whether the women have children. Her new report, “It’s the Family, Stupid? Not Quite … How Traditional Gender Roles Do Not Affect Women’s Political Ambition,” suggests that the idea that, oh…let’s say…Hillary Clinton, will weigh her grandmotherly duties (such as they are) as she considers a run for the White House is simply wrong.


She The People reached out to Lawless about her study and all things women in politics to get her take on running for office, the midterms and how partisanship and gridlock affect how women run their campaigns. (The interview has been lightly edited.)

STP: What were your assumptions going into the study?

Lawless: We’ve been doing research on political ambition for a while, with the first survey in 2001. We expected that traditional roles would make it less likely for women to run for office because women shoulder a bigger responsibility in family roles.  In 2001, women talked about how difficult that balance was. In 2011, we expected that it would matter, as well, and we found nothing. And there hasn’t been a change to a more egalitarian balance of work. Women have had to figure out how to navigate the dual roles. There is a substantial gap in political ambition, but family reasons just aren’t a part of it. It’s one more thing we can rule out when thinking about why women run for office. We should focus on other culprits — the gender gap in recruitment and self-perceived qualifications — and we should be trying to figure out how to close those gaps if we want to see more women run for office.

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STP: How do you explain the disparity in terms of ambition and confidence about running for office. Is it that men think they are all that, and women don’t?

Lawless: Men overestimate and women underestimate. Men look around and see that lots of people come in all different shapes and sizes. But, for women, to the extent that you don’t fit the mold of say, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sarah Palin, there is greater opportunity for self doubt. Although there is no female bias on Election Day — voters are just as willing to vote for women as men — but that is not the perception, so the women and men thought there was a perceived bias. Women think that they have to be twice as good to get twice as far. The women who are saying that they aren’t qualified are making assumptions based on wrong information, but information that happens to be the conventional wisdom. So getting out the message that people will vote for women is important.

STP: What about the idea that women who run for office get more scrutiny about their appearance, clothes and hair?

Lawless: There is a lot of speculation but not much empirical evidence that there is much difference in terms of the coverage that candidates receive, or mentions about their appearance. If you look at local newspapers, which is how most people get news about candidates, at the congressional level, there is no evidence that men and women are covered differently, both in volume and substance of coverage. Women aren’t penalized for their appearance. That kind of appearance coverage is incredibly rare. In House races, less than three percent of the articles included that kind of coverage, and it only matters if it’s negative. If it is negative, it hurts men and women the same amount.

STP: What about at the national level?

Lawless:  We aren’t at the point in presidential politics.  We have no idea if the coverage Hillary Clinton received had to do with her being Hillary Clinton or married to Bill Clinton or what drove it. At the Senate and congressional level, there is no difference in terms of coverage of appearance. There is a more level playing field than people imagine, but perceptions drive perception.

STP: But what about when people speculated about whether Hillary Clinton becoming a grandma would affect whether she would run for president. Isn’t that gendered coverage?

Lawless: What’s different is the information environment is really broad. My hunch is that the bulk of that coverage is from cable news, talk radio, not mainstream journalists, and not to diminish that, but hardly anyone listens to them. In local newspapers, that is not what anyone is writing about. Family roles aren’t keeping woman from running, and that there is a lack of appearance coverage -that is important to know. A lot of the obstacles that women perceive are not grounded in reality. I don’t blame the women. I think the media have gotten much better. They offer more nuanced coverage. But a lot of it’s punditry and irresponsible reporting without investigating how the world actually works, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

STP: One argument has been that given political gridlock, women stand a better chance because voters see them as being able to work together.  How does that gridlock play in campaigns?

Lawless: Party polarization frees up male and female candidates to play to party stereotypes as opposed to gender stereotypes. The Joni Ernst ads are pretty much as counterstereotypic as you can get. She can castrate pigs. It’s definitely not warm and fuzzy, “I’m a soccer mom, send me to Washington,” and that represents a shift. It is part of increased party polarization, and an upside of that is that gender is a far less salient cue. You know everything about a candidate based on whether there is a D or R in front of their name. The ultimate irony is that the things that people hate about politics are probably a major reason that gender is less relevant than it once was in terms of media coverage and voter assessments. Once you are on the campaign trail, party trumps sex.

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