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How having more than one woman vying for a job can change everything

There has been only one time in U.S. political history that more than one woman was a candidate for the same party’s presidential nomination. It was during the 1972 campaign: Rep. Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (D-Hawaii), the first woman of color elected to Congress, ran against Shirley Chisholm in the Oregon primary as an anti-war candidate. She dropped out after receiving only 2 percent of the vote.

When it comes to choosing someone for the most powerful government job in the land, voters have not had another chance to choose from multiple women in the major party races.

Until now.

California Sen. Kamala Harris was the fourth woman to declare a bid for the White House, after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii). Speculation remains that others, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), will join the race for the Democratic bid.

Kamala Harris enters 2020 presidential race

The race offers a new chance to consider questions about hiring that have been raised in other fields, from business management to corporate boards. What happens when a woman is no longer the only female in a pool of candidates for a leadership job? Do her chances go up? Is her gender more or less salient to the decision-makers -- whether voters or hiring managers? Are stereotypes or implicit biases less likely to get in the way?

Experts on gender, politics and leadership say the multiple women running in the 2020 Democratic primary could help to normalize the idea of female presidential candidates -- as opposed to them being cast as a novelty -- making them seem more like of a part of the political process. And seeing multiple women on a debate stage rather than one woman amid a semi-circle of men could help reinforce the individualism of female candidates, they said.

What this affords is for the voter to see the distinctiveness of the women," said Deborah Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “We’re going to see the differences, and we’ve never had that opportunity before on the presidential stage.”

Having more women in the race could make it more likely a woman gets nominated, and not just because of statistical probability. In 2016, three professors published preliminary data in the Harvard Business Review that showed when a woman is the only candidate in a pool of men being evaluated for certain jobs, there’s little statistical chance she’ll be hired.

Based on both experimental studies and an analysis of university hiring data, the study found that when there were at least two women being considered, the odds of one of them getting hired went way up -- some 79 times higher, the study found -- a figure that goes far beyond the increased statistical chance of there simply being more women in the pool.

The study, said Stefanie Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of its co-authors, is based on the theory of tokenism -- that when there’s one woman in a group of men, they are often seen as being representative of all women. Other research has shown, for instance, that on corporate boards, it’s not until there’s three women in the room, or until they have “critical mass,” before their contributions make the most impact, rather than being seen as representing a woman’s view.

“When you have at least two women, you realize those women are going to be different from each other,” Johnson said. “You can’t apply the stereotypes in the same way -- it doesn’t make sense.”

Still, experts on gender and politics warn that the issue is unlikely to recede from its front and center position in a presidential race, and could remain quite pronounced as the candidates, media coverage and voters try to distinguish each Democratic hopeful. Gillibrand, for instance, who has focused on issues in the past like sexual assault and family leave, embraced her role as a mother in her announcement.

“In a political election, when everything is so comparable, you can’t help but have these comparisons take place,” said Lindsey Meeks, a professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied elections where there were multiple female candidates. “There are so many gendered layers; so many gendered perceptions of issues and traits and communication styles and leadership styles, that I think that’s always going to be dominant, whether it’s multiple men or multiple women running.”

That’s especially the case when it comes to the presidency. It’s been well-researched that one challenge for women in leadership positions is that they’re expected to act in ways -- such as being aggressive, assertive or authoritative -- that fall outside of the more collaborative, consensus-building gender norms many people continue to hold for female leaders. Nowhere is that more true than with the presidency of the United States.

Some companies still don’t have any female directors. California wants to fine them.

“This is an office to which we’ve applied the most traditional gender norms -- and by traditional I mean we have looked to the president as this paternal figure, a patriarchal figure,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers. “The symbolism of this office is this traditionally and highly masculinized position,” she said, that can make it hard for some people to imagine a woman in that position. She pointed to a recent Pew Research Center study that showed nearly six times as many people still see men as holding an advantage on dealing with national security and defense, even if most said there was no difference.

Johnson, the author of the HBR report, said it’s not clear whether the effect they saw in their data would hold in the highly scrutinized, exceedingly public circumstances of a presidential campaign -- in most hiring situations, candidates don’t debate on a stage or run attack ads against each other -- but the impact it could have on those who tend to hold stronger implicit biases could play a role, she said.

“It’s a different context," she said. "But I still believe viewers are going to view women differently, because women are going to be different from each other.”

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