The view of women political leaders is always evolving, as women continue to notch "firsts" with each election cycle. And a new Pew Research Center study shows that most people see little difference in what men and women bring to political leadership.
There is still some difference in perception, though, with women seen as more honest and willing to compromise — traits that women in Congress stressed in the aftermath of bipartisan breakthroughs, particularly the 2013 budget deal.
The Fix reached out to Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, to get her take on the findings. Her organization put out "Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women" last year.
FIX: So what stood out to you about the report?
KIMMELL: For me, one of the most interesting points is that people think there aren't enough women and there ought to be more, but our research shows it does not predict the vote. Even though they feel that, when they go to the ballot box, it doesn’t mean that they vote for a woman over a man with the same credentials.
Party trumps gender. We know that independent women are more likely to vote for women and are more interested than other demographics, and that is positive for women because they are an important voting bloc. Another interesting thing is that it used to be in our research that women did get a bump for being women because they were seen as outsiders by virtue of their gender alone, but that’s not really true anymore. That advantage of women-as-automatic-outsider has dissipated over time.
FIX: Why has that changed?
KIMMELL: We started to see a shift around 2010, after Hillary’s first bid and Sarah Palin was on the scene and Nancy Pelosi. Women politicians were on the cover of magazines and "above the fold." So they have come to be seen as less of a unicorn even though the numbers show they are vastly underrepresented.
FIX: There still are some slight advantages in how women leaders are seen, on honesty and ethics.
KIMMELL: That continues to be an advantage, but not as much as it was. And women’s male opponents know it’s an advantage and they know that once a woman falls off that honesty pedestal it’s a lot harder for women to get back on that pedestal. Voters have a really hard time with women who violate that expectation of trust.
FIX: People also seem to think that women are held to higher standards and that's one of the reasons there is that under representation. What do you make of that?
KIMMELL: For a time, women had to prove toughness and strength and they had to portray that while being likable. Now what our research shows is that it's more important for women to show strength and be a problem-solver, which is different than being tough. And that's a positive change.
What we do see is that women need to be likable to be viewed as qualified, and those two are inextricably linked. If you aren't seen as likable, then you won't be seen as qualified, and vice-versa. But for men, those two qualities aren't linked at all.