Gender and Justification in Political Scandal

AuthorStephen Utych,Ashley Stilwell
Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(1) 131 –143
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211041145
Scandal and corruption, it seems, often go hand in hand
with politics, and have for decades (see Peters & Welch,
1978). Politicians, especially nationally visible politicians,
are often embroiled in scandals, whether small or large,
real or manufactured.1 This was seen prominently in the
2016 presidential election, where Donald Trump and his
supporters chanted “Lock her up!” at Hillary Clinton over
allegations of misuse of her private email server during her
time as secretary of state. Similarly, during Trump’s cam-
paign, serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault
were levied against him, and as president, his use of Trump
properties for official government business and refusal to
release his tax returns have come under significant public
As Trump has shown, there are different avenues politi-
cians can take to deal with a scandal, as well. In the case of
his tax returns, Trump has offered a justification of a long-
pending IRS audit as a reason for not releasing them. In the
case of the use of Trump properties, however, Trump has
remained largely silent. We examine how justifications can
operate to mute political scandal, and how this differs by
Considering the cultural implications of gender stereo-
types as well as the techniques used in blame-avoidance
strategies and public perception management, we will exam-
ine how public attitudes toward politicians are impacted by
both gender and corruption accusations. The current study
considers corruption, transgression, and scandal as one of the
same concepts, defined as “illegal, or unauthorized, profi-
teering by officials who exploit their position for personal
gain” (Blackburn et al., 2004, p. 5).
The importance of this topic is exemplified by the emerg-
ing trend to increase women’s representation in liberal
democracies. Early academics assumed that the low levels of
women in political office were a consequence of voter bias,
but modern findings show that when women run for political
positions they have the same likelihood of winning as their
male counterparts (Ford, 2002). However, in contrast to men,
women are less likely to contemplate running for office due
to misunderstanding voters’ attitudes and their own abilities
(Fox & Lawless, 2002). Women often have to display stron-
ger qualifications than men to be elected to office (Bauer,
2020). Essentially, women running for office win at the same
rate as men because they are better candidates (Fulton, 2012).
Because of this, the effects of scandal may be especially
important—if women face different penalties for being
accused of political scandals, whether or not these accusa-
tions are accurate, it could be damaging for their electoral
Scandal, Stereotypes and Gender
Political scandals can have important impacts on electoral
outcomes, influencing both the likelihood that a politician
chooses to not seek re-election, and their vote share in the
1041145APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211041145American Politics ResearchStilwell and Utych
1University of Idaho, ID, USA
2Boise State University, ID, USA
Corresponding Author:
Stephen Utych, Boise State University, 1910 University Drive – MS 1935,
Boise, ID 83725, USA.
Gender and Justification in
Political Scandal
Ashley Stilwell1 and Stephen Utych2
Scandals are an unfortunate, but important, part of the political world. We examine how citizen perceptions of politicians
involved in scandals are conditional upon two important factors: the politician’s gender and their decision to provide a
justification for the scandal. Using experimental evidence, we find that justification of a scandal increases perceptions of
competence for politicians, regardless of gender, but only increases perceptions of likability for women. We find, additionally,
that the effect of gender is conditional on political ideology: liberals generally feel more positive toward a woman involved in
a scandal, while no difference emerges for conservatives.
gender, scandal, ideology

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