Tuesday’s elections brought a number of firsts for women in American politics. Iowans for the first time sent a woman, Joni Ernst, to Congress. Mia Love became the first African American Republican woman to win a congressional seat. And next year, women will occupy more than 100 seats in Congress for the first time.
Despite the historic night, concerns about women’s representation are hardly diminished. When all the votes are counted, women will have won at most 20 percent of the seats in Congress and just five of 50 governor’s offices. Indeed, a New York Times story noted Thursday that “women in both parties say the growth is incremental and the numbers are disappointing.”
Numerous factors contribute to women’s underrepresentation, but the Times story contained a questionable, yet common, claim about the media’s role in creating a tougher road to office for female candidates. Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway was quoted as saying that news coverage of women tends to focus on “feminine characteristics.” According to the article, those apparently include “cleavage, weeping and hairdos.” If so, voters might not take female candidates seriously.
Recent data suggest this isn’t true. In a study of the 2010 midterms, Jennifer Lawless and I analyzed thousands of articles in local newspapers – the place where voters get most of their information about congressional races – about hundreds of U.S. House candidates. We found virtually no differences in the content of coverage for men and women.
In those races, women were just as likely to receive coverage as men. We found that male and female candidates were associated with the same issues and traits. And not only were mentions of the candidates’ gender – references to physical appearance, clothes, family roles and so forth – quite rare, they occurred with the same frequency for men and women. If cleavage is a popular topic in campaign coverage, we couldn’t find it.
This might seem surprising, especially when we see stories like those about Sen. Tom Harkin’s comments comparing Ernst to Taylor Swift. But the reality is that those kinds of episodes are rare. They are hardly representative of the media coverage that women experience on the campaign trail.
Although the rare instance of gendered coverage could pose challenges for women, men are not immune from it. Conway wondered, “Where are the comparable stories about paunchy beer bellies and bad comb-overs?”
Stories about pantsuits and waistlines are swamped by more mundane political news – coverage of candidates’ campaign activities, their standing in the polls and the occasional analysis of their policy ideas. And that’s one reason that research suggests voters don’t appear to discriminate against female candidates.
Of course, the barriers to getting more women into positions of political leadership are real, significant and stubborn. As the Times story noted, the gender gap in political ambition – men are more likely than women to run for office – is a major reason for women’s underrepresentation. According to data from the Center for American Women and Politics, 15 women this year ran for the Senate and 159 ran for the House. With those numbers, how could their gains have been anything but incremental?
And because most women run as Democrats, a “good night” for Republicans, to borrow a phrase, means a tough cycle for female candidates. Expanding the number of women who run for office on both sides of the aisle is the key to broader representation.