How Messages About Gender Bias Can Both Help and Hurt Women’s Representation

Date01 May 2019
Published date01 May 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17a1rt2Lo0R0KA/input 795608APRXXX10.1177/1532673X18795608American Politics ResearchBrooks and Hayes
American Politics Research
2019, Vol. 47(3) 601 –627
How Messages About
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
Gender Bias Can Both
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X18795608
Help and Hurt Women’s
Deborah Jordan Brooks1
and Danny Hayes2
Gender bias in elections is both a source of debate in the political science
literature and a prominent topic in U.S. political discourse. As a result,
Americans are exposed to differing messages about the extent to which
women face disadvantages in their campaigns for office. We argue that such
messages can have differing effects—some of which benefit female candidates,
but others that may perpetuate the gender gap in political ambition. Using
a survey experiment administered on samples of the U.S. public, campaign
donors, and college students, we show that messages portraying women
as facing gender bias boosts female candidates’ support and young people’s
willingness to engage in campaign activism on their behalf. Simultaneously,
it does not affect female candidates’ fundraising ability. But paradoxically,
such messages also reduce young women’s confidence in their own ability
to run a political campaign. These results suggest important implications for
women’s underrepresentation.
women and politics, gender, bias, stereotypes, media, experiment, candidate,
campaigns, elections
1Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA
2The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Deborah Jordan Brooks, Dartmouth College, Department of Government, 6108 Silsby Hall,
Hanover, NH 03755.

American Politics Research 47(3)
Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election produced a deluge of
speculation about the prospects of a woman ever winning the U.S. presi-
dency. In postelection analyses, some noted that “unconscious sexism” might
have been responsible for Clinton’s defeat.1 Others suggested that Clinton
lost because women “suffer more than male candidates” when they are seen
as untrustworthy, a perception that bedeviled the former senator and secretary
of state throughout the campaign.2 One common refrain was that Clinton was
just the latest female candidate to have “faced more resistance, and received
less support” than their male counterparts.3 Clinton herself concluded that
“misogyny played a role” in her defeat.4 Meanwhile, others argued that her
Electoral College loss had little to do with gender and was instead largely
about partisanship and other dynamics.5 And although less widespread, still
other analyses suggested that being a woman might have given Clinton an
advantage,6 especially in an era in which many strategists had begun to view
women as stronger candidates than men.7
These postmortems were hardly surprising, given that debates over the role
of gender were a staple of 2016 campaign coverage.8 And while Clinton’s
campaign was historic, the focus on her electoral prospects as a woman was
not unusual. At a time when women occupy less than one quarter of most
major political offices in the United States, the extent to which gender bias
impedes female candidates is a prominent part of public discourse surround-
ing U.S. elections. Stories about female candidates often focus on whether
discrimination, stereotypes, or other factors among voters makes it more or
less difficult for women to win office.9
Our question is how exposure to discourse about gender bias can affect
political attitudes and behavior. This is a critical matter, because such debates
may affect people’s support for female candidates, as well as the willingness
of men and women to potentially run for office. And although we emphasize
the delivery of these messages via the news media, people can also be exposed
to those discussions in the workplace, at home, through social media, in fun-
draising brochures, in campaign speeches, and in classrooms. As such, this
study, the first of its kind, offers a view of how those messages can affect
political behavior and attitudes.
We draw on the political communication, psychology, and women and
politics literatures to develop expectations about how discourse about the
prospects for female candidates can affect a wide range of political behaviors.
We argue that when the media portray women as facing systematic discrimi-
nation in elections, female candidates can gain support relative to coverage
that paints a more optimistic picture of the electoral landscape. We show
experimentally that the end result is to help women win additional votes and
mobilize people to engage in campaign activism on their behalf. We also

Brooks and Hayes
show that, while it does not boost their fundraising from donors, coverage
that frames women as facing gender bias does not hurt female candidates’
efforts to raise money. At the same time, we also find that such coverage
simultaneously undermines the confidence that young women have in their
ability to run an effective campaign themselves. This collection of findings
suggests that public discourse emphasizing gender bias may benefit female
candidates in the short run but might simultaneously make it more difficult to
close the gender gap in political ambition.
Our findings come from a survey experiment conducted simultaneously
among three different samples, allowing us to explore the heterogeneous
effects of political communication. Using the same instrument, we find mini-
mal effects among donors, while finding important effects on different behav-
iors for a cross-section of U.S. adults and college students. Our design thus
permits us to capture a range of relevant effects among different types of
political actors who play distinctive roles in contemporary elections.
Debates over the Causes of Women’s Under-
Despite substantial gains in recent decades, women continue to be numeri-
cally underrepresented in American politics. As of 2018, 20% of the U.S.
Congress is made up of women. Just one quarter of state legislators are
women. Women hold the governor’s offices in only six of the 50 states, and
just 20 mayors in the country’s 100 biggest cities are women.10
Aside from structural factors such as the absence of gender quotas (e.g.,
O’Brien & Rickne, 2016) and high re-election rates among (mostly male)
incumbents (Schwindt-Bayer, 2005), the prevailing explanation for the con-
tinued underrepresentation of women in the United States is the gender gap
in political ambition. That is, even controlling for objective qualifications,
women are less likely than men to run for office (e.g., Lawless & Fox, 2010).
This disparity has multiple roots, including childhood socialization (Lawless
& Fox, 2010), patterns of political recruitment (Fox & Lawless, 2010;
Sanbonmatsu, 2006), an aversion to electoral competition (Kanthak & Woon,
2015; Schneider, Holman, Diekman, & McAndrew, 2015), and an ideologi-
cal mismatch with the Republican Party (Thomsen, 2015).
At the same time, scholars have been engaged in a robust debate about the
extent to which gender bias on the campaign trail makes it harder for women
to win when they do run. A large literature argues that social stereotypes of
women lead voters to view female candidates as insufficiently tough, lacking
leadership skills, or poorly suited in handling the “masculine” issues, such as
crime and national security, that are often at the center of political debates

American Politics Research 47(3)
(e.g., Alexander & Andersen, 1993; Bauer, 2015; Bell & Kauffman, 2015;
Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993; Lawless, 2004; Rosenwasser & Dean, 1989).
Media coverage that treats female candidates less seriously than their male
opponents contributes to this disadvantage (e.g., Aday & Devitt, 2001;
Braden, 1996; Kahn, 1996). And more recent work has suggested that implicit
bias, at least among some voters, may impose penalties on female candidates
(Mo, 2015; Ono & Burden, 2018). Although none of this prevents women
from winning office, it raises a series of barriers that make it harder for
women to succeed (Dittmar, 2015; Fulton, 2012).
Other work has argued that gender bias presents few obstacles, pointing to
evidence that women who run raise just as much money, win just as many
votes, and are elected just as often as men (e.g., Burrell, 2014; Lawless,
2015). Several recent studies, both experimental and observational, suggest
that stereotypes do not harm female candidates’ prospects, and that they do
not lead voters to hold women to higher standards on the campaign trail than
their male counterparts (e.g., Brooks, 2011; Brooks, 2013; Dolan, 2014;
Fridkin & Kenney, 2014; Hayes 2011; Hayes, Lawless, & Baitinger, 2014).
Recent work also finds inconsistent, small, or nonexistent differences in the
news coverage of male and female candidates (Atkeson & Krebs, 2008;
Fridkin & Kenney, 2014; Hayes & Lawless, 2016). In part because of the
increasing number of female candidates, changing societal views, and
increasing partisan polarization, gender bias appears to have little direct
causal leverage for explaining women’s underrepresentation.
The upshot is that the academic literature offers very different ways to
frame the prospects of women’s fortunes in American elections. And increas-
ingly, this...

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