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Why can’t women just be themselves when they run for office?

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) addresses a nuclear protest in 1978. Schroeder, Colorado’s first female member of Congress, remembers being so frustrated by gender stereotyping that she would “go home and scream at the wall.” (Raimundo Borea/AP)

When women run for office, they should be compassionate and competent, strong (but not tough) and above all, likable. They can be funny — sort of — and they have to be smart, but they can’t take all of the credit for their work. Also, they shouldn’t pose for headshots. (Headshots can make the woman come across as stuffy. Better to stick with candid shots of her in the community to portray she’s likable.)

Ummm, what?

Hillary Clinton, who could soon be the country’s first female president, might not be surprised by this list of head-spinning — and at times contradictory — qualities research shows the public expects from female candidates and politicians. In fact, Clinton recently told Jimmy Fallon “it’s especially tricky for women” to come across as both serious and likable. The real-world experiences of women in politics suggest she’s right: While women tend to win elections at the same rate as men, they are viewed differently from men by the media and voters.

Those are the findings from the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies women in politics. The group found voters respond best to female candidates for office at both the state and federal level when they display the above attributes.

Watch: Challenging, frustrating, fantastic: Life as a woman in the White House

That’s the bad news for gender parity in politics. But here’s the good news: Research also suggests women running for office today may not have to spend as much time thinking about how to project themselves. For one, female politicians have become more commonplace, so voters don’t judge them as intensely. And party loyalty trumps gender stereotypes these days — meaning voters will usually vote along party lines, regardless of whether the candidate is a man or woman.

Still, the possibility voters might judge you more than a man for a joke you tell or photo you pose for is a lot for any aspiring female politician to think about. So women in politics today say they try not to.

Each of the half-dozen current and former female politicians interviewed for this report had her own different way of approaching being a woman in the spotlight. Rather than stress their likability, they shared three things that help them get past the judginess.

1. A fear of missing out:

“I’m very competitive, so I’m not afraid to get in there with the guys and mix it up,” said Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R). “It was more important for me to be at the table.”

2. Not caring (or trying not to care) what other people think:

“I can tell you there [are] not too many days I go through this job I don’t get some kind of comment about [my appearance],” whether innocuous or otherwise, said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.). “I work very, very hard — and I have my entire career — not to take things personally.”

3. Being comfortable with ambiguity

From the moment Reynolds decided to run for her first election as county treasurer, she had to get over the idea she didn’t know everything: “You don’t have to be perfect,” she reminds herself and the women she recruits.

It’s a relatively new truth that women can now be more themselves in politics. A few decades ago, strategists advised women in politics (and business, for that matter) to essentially be versions of men. Women who broke that mold often had a hard time.

In 1973, Patricia Schroeder (D), became the first woman from Colorado to be elected to Congress and, later, the first woman to seriously consider a major-party presidential bid. Through her 12 terms in Congress, she made a conscious decision to try not to act like as a man would. And she ended up being stereotyped an awful lot for it.

“All of us remember our mothers nagging. And Pat’s got some of that tone,” then-Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) told The Washington Post in a 1987 profile of Schroeder. ” … Sometimes she can be incredibly aggravating.”

Schroeder found herself so frustrated when people asked where her husband was, or who was taking care of her two young children that she would “go home and scream at the wall.” Or she would throw out a biting comment that would end up in the paper and perpetuate the cycle all over again.

“People would say: ‘How can you be a congressman and a mother?'” recalled Schroeder, a National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee. “And I said ‘I have a brain. I have a uterus. They both work.’ That’s when I lost it.” (That particular comment landed on the front page of the Denver Post.)

Former congresswoman Nancy L. Johnson (R), who first entered Congress representing a working-class district in Connecticut in the ’80s, tried the opposite tactic: win over skeptical voters with kindness.

Early on as she ran for office, a man looked at her and told her she should be home taking care of her children. Johnson politely explained her kids were in junior high school and switched the conversation to the man’s manufacturing job. “When we left, he said: ‘Well, you know your stuff.’”

“You had to earn people’s respect,” said Johnson, who also served 12 terms in Congress. “And you couldn’t do that by being brassy. That wasn’t what they were looking for.”

Researchers say it was undeniably tough out there for female politicians just a few decades ago. Women didn’t start winning elections at the same rate as men until the ’80s, and voters were willing to admit they would prefer a male candidate. (Today, voters offer to the Barbara Lee Family Foundation that their “friends and neighbors” probably prefer a man.)

It’s not like voters at that time wouldn’t even consider female officeholders. But in the ’80s and ’90s, women had an edge on being perceived as empathetic and likable, while men were favored on competence and strong leadership, said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University. All things being equal, competence and strong leadership win elections.

Lawless found that in the hyper-polarized 2010 and 2014 elections, voters were equally likely to assess a female or male candidate as competent, strong, empathetic and trustworthy — as long as that candidate matched up with their political beliefs.

“It might be that people still think women should behave a certain way or that men have an edge on a certain trait,” Lawless said. “But in the voting booth, when they’re actually given the choice between a Democrat or a Republican, those abstract notions don’t translate.”

Today’s female politicians and the strategists who support them say they are having fewer conversations about how to portray themselves. (Though outfit changes are still a daily struggle: “There’s no equivalent for women of literally rolling up their sleeves,” said Erin Souza-Rezendes with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.)

And women today say they feel more free to talk about their family, their personal stories — anything, really, that can help them relate to a voter. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has a name for this: The “360-degree” candidate, or a candidate who opens up about her personal moments. And research says voters respond to authenticity particularly well when it comes from a woman.

The bigger hurdle today, female politicians say, is increasing their numbers on the campaign trail in the first place.

Reynolds and Bustos are both party leaders who have made it a priority to recruit more women. And both say it takes a lot more time to convince a woman that she would be a good candidate than it does a man.

“The first question a woman will typically ask is: ‘How does this impact my family?'” Bustos said. “They often ask about the attack ads that are a part of running for Congress. And often times you’ll even hear: ‘Gosh, the issues are so complex and deep and broad, and even understanding them all seems very difficult.’

“And a man’s first typical question is: ‘Can I win?’ And a woman eventually gets to that question, but there are all these other things she asks about first.”

Evidence suggests the answer to that ultimate question — can women win — is: Yes . . . but it’s still complicated.


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