A Tunisian woman casts her ballot paper during the Tunisian parliamentary elections at a polling station in Tunis Oct. 26, 2014. (Mohamed Messara/EPA)

Women’s under-representation in political leadership is a longstanding problem that exists at a nearly universal level, despite progress toward gender equality in some countries. A recent U.N. report on women offers staggering evidence of gender inequality, demonstrating that no country in the world has reached parity. And, even in the United States, one need only witness the debate over Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential candidacy to realize that even where female representation is promoted, gender stereotypes and biases are widespread.

The problem is particularly apparent in the Arab world. Government officials, activists and scholars warn that gender inequality in this region violates fundamental human rights, thwarts development and fosters instability. Most attempts to explain gender gaps in the Middle East and North Africa are based on cultural and modernization theories, with a particular focus on how oil or Islam shape preferences and practices. Yet, these explanations neglect the reality of gender inequality as a universal problem, evident in societies with different religions and levels of socioeconomic development, and draw attention away from a broader theory that can explain gender inequality in the Arab world and beyond.

In our recent article in Perspectives on Politics – which is temporarily ungated – we put forth a theory of electoral bias that goes beyond the Arab world and applies to biases based on gender and other traits, including religiosity. Drawn from social psychology, role congruity theory was developed by Alice Eagly and her colleagues based on their work uncovering the “wonderful women effect.” This research shows that although women were seen as extremely capable in arenas such as child rearing and hosting and often viewed as superior to men with regards to traits such as honesty and kindness, they were not seen as having qualities associated with effective leadership (e.g., decisiveness, strength). As a result of this mismatch, people frequently undervalue women as potential and actual leaders because they attribute different stereotypical traits to men and women, based on gender roles stemming from sex differentiation in the labor force. Moreover, they hold established notions of a “good leader” that are often at odds with these stereotyped traits of women. This means that equally qualified women will be less likely to be chosen for leadership roles and, when they are, their performance will be discounted vis-à-vis equally performing leaders from the dominant group (i.e., males). We argue that the extent to which voters view gender and another salient trait, religiosity, as signaling capable leadership depends largely on preconceptions about characteristics of good leaders and the stereotypes they hold about people with these traits.

We demonstrate the existence of electoral bias against female and religious candidates and the strength of role congruity theory in explaining it through a survey experiment of 1,202 Tunisians conducted in October and November 2012. The experiment presented respondents with photographs of potential candidates (male and female, apparently religious or non-religious) and asked how likely they would be to vote for them as shown in Figure 1. By examining the extent to which people say that they would be willing to vote for different candidates, based solely on pictures, we can begin to understand the extent to which they hold biases.

Figure 1         Questions and Photos in the Survey Experiment

We chose males and females of similar age, attractiveness, and “believability” as a candidate to ensure that comparisons are not confounded. (Lindsay J. Benstead, Amaney A. Jamal, Ellen Lust)

The experiment uncovered evidence of biases against female and religious candidates in Tunisia (see Figure 2). In general, respondents were more likely to say that they would vote for an apparently secular male – the candidate who looks most like the typical leader in Tunisia (and many other places worldwide) – than any of the other three candidates. And, voters’ perceptions regarding the congruence between group characteristics and leadership were the most powerful predictors of attitudes toward potential candidates, not respondents’ religious views or levels of socioeconomic development. People who saw women and leadership and/or religion and leadership as more congruent were less likely to hold biases against the other three candidates. However, while those candidates drew support from largely one segment of the population – such as voters who support equal rights for women preferring secular female candidate – the secular male was equally electable among all sections of society, regardless of voters’ views on religion and politics or women’s rights (see Figure 3). This shows how “looking the part” gives candidates from the dominant group a leg up in elections. The religious appearing female and male, in contrast, tended to face negative biases among people who see religion and leadership as incongruent.

Figure 2: Support by Candidate Gender and Religious Dress

Given 95% confidence intervals, mean support for the secular male is 2.26-2.44, compared to 2.07-2.26 for the religious male, a statistically significant difference. Support for the secular female is 2.21-2.34 and for the religious female, 2.14-2.33, indicating no significant difference in popularity. (Lindsay J. Benstead, Amaney A. Jamal, Ellen Lust)

Figure 3: Support for Candidates by Religious and Gender Role Congruity

(Lindsay J. Benstead, Amaney Jamal, Ellen Lust)

Our study contributes a new theoretical framework for the cross-regional study of women, religion and politics. Substantial literature regarding women and politics in the United States highlights the role of trait, competency and issue stereotypes in explaining why so few women attain elected higher office. But, this literature does not explicitly draw on role congruity theory, which emphasizes the mismatch between these stereotyped traits and traits of good leaders.

The study prompts scholars, analysts and policymakers to rethink explanations for women’s disempowerment in the Arab world. As discussed above, existing literature focuses narrowly on the often-polemical debate between Islam and structural conditions, such as oil and economic modernization. This debate not only views the Arab world as exceptional, but it also sees unalterable conditions as the foundation of gender bias in the region. In contrast, recognizing the more general mechanisms of role congruity theory that underpin gender bias in the Arab world points to potentially powerful policy interventions.

The theory suggests that there are two ways then to reduce political bias against disadvantaged groups: first, by altering views of traits held by women, minorities, religious or other groups, and second, by expanding views of traits associated with effective leaders. Policymakers should establish institutions that help assure representation of gender, religious minorities or others. Quotas and other policies that bring women and minorities in the public sphere can reshape stereotypes of women and religious candidates as leaders, while fostering more diverse conceptualizations of effective leadership, independently of social or economic changes associated with modernization. Similarly, greater turnover in leadership and, potentially, changes in leadership styles may foster appreciation of a wider range of leadership styles and skills.

Lindsay J. Benstead is an assistant professor of political science at the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University. Amaney A. Jamal is the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and of the Workshop on Arab Political Development. Ellen Lust is a professor of political science and founding director of the Program on Governance and Local Development, Yale University.