A Theory of Gender’s Role on Presidential Approval Ratings in Corrupt Times

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(3) 540 –555
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919838626
Despite traditional doubts concerning female leadership,
women have governed for at least a year in about one in
four countries since 1960.1 This appears as an unequivo-
cal sign of gender progress, but the stakes are high for
female leaders to receive comparable approval ratings—a
key measure of “success” and source of power—as their
male counterparts (Campello and Zucco 2015; Carlin,
Love, and Martinez-Gallardo 2015b; Light 1999;
Neustadt 1990). Executive institutions’ masculinist char-
acteristics are thought to undermine women leaders’ abil-
ity to appear equally competent (Duerst-Lahti and Kelly
1995; Jamieson 1995; O’Brien and Reyes-Housholder
forthcoming), but recent work concludes that gendered
standards and double binds no longer matter (Brooks
2013; Teele, Kalla, and Rosenbluth 2018).
I advance the literature on female leadership with a the-
ory spelling out how gendered standards and discourse in
contexts of corruption can undermine their ratings. The
abuse of political power for personal gain is a top citizen
concern in much of the world (Anderson and Tverdova
2003; Davis, Camp, and Coleman 2004; Seligson 2002).
“Pro-women” stereotypes—such as the idea that women are
more ethical—may favor female leaders, particularly in
countries tainted by these kinds of scandals (Barnes and
Beaulieu 2014; Murray 2010; G. Thomas and Adams 2010).
I instead argue that because of this belief in women’s
integrity, female presidents often face higher standards
for their moral leadership. When corruption accusations
emerge implicating female-led administrations, “pro-
women” discourse may backfire, and the opposition can
resurrect latent doubts about women’s ability to govern.
Therefore, gendered expectations and discourse in these
contexts will likely result in lower approval ratings for
female than male presidents.
I conduct this study in Latin America, known for its
powerful, masculinist presidential regimes as well as its
recent trend of democratically elected female leaders (Cox
and Morgenstern 2001; Jalalzai 2016; Reyes-Housholder
and Thomas 2018). I first illustrate the theory by showing
how beliefs in women’s integrity helped raise the bar for
moral leadership under Chile’s presidenta. When a scan-
dal broke implicating her family, President Michelle
Bachelet played to her traditional strengths by portraying
838626PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919838626Political Research QuarterlyReyes-Housholder
1Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies-ICSO Universidad
Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile
Corresponding Author:
Catherine Reyes-Housholder, Ejército 278, edificio ED, segundo piso,
Santiago Centro, Santiago, Chile.
Email: catherine.reyes@mail.udp.cl
A Theory of Gender’s Role on
Presidential Approval Ratings in
Corrupt Times
Catherine Reyes-Housholder1
The rise of female chief executives appears to signal gender progress, but this may not be unequivocally so. This
article advances a contextual theory for the role of gender on leaders’ approval ratings, a key measure of “success”
and source of executive power. I argue that because of gendered expectations and discourse, female presidents will
receive lower approval ratings in contexts of corruption. The study focuses on Latin America, known for its powerful,
masculinist presidential regimes and its democratically elected female leaders. I first trace the gendered construction of
President Michelle Bachelet’s image as an honest mother. Upon a presidential scandal, higher standards and gendered
discourse resulted in deeply disappointed citizens, significantly undermining her popularity. Models of eighteen Latin
American countries next reveal a negative impact of being a female—rather than a male—president on approval
ratings. Marginal effects plots show that female presidents score worse than their male counterparts in contexts of
at least one presidential scandal and higher executive corruption. This article contributes to the growing literature
on gender and corruption. It also challenges some conventional wisdom on the pro-women consequences of female
leadership in providing a more nuanced account of the role of gender in the executive branch.
presidency, approval ratings, gender stereotypes, corruption, female presidents, Latin America
Reyes-Housholder 541
herself as an honest, emotionally candid mother. The
opposition, however, discursively leveraged her mother-
hood to discredit her, and others faulted her for not leading
in stereotypically masculine ways. Citizens’ disappoint-
ment deepened, and Bachelet’s ratings plummeted.
Cross-sex and cross-country comparisons further
enhance the theory’s plausibility. Bachelet’s co-partisan
male predecessor had confronted a similar scandal, but
emerged virtually unscathed. Likewise, in Brazil, a male
president won reelection in 2006 despite scandals while
his female successor was impeached in 2016 for less
egregious offenses. Presidential approval models span-
ning eighteen Latin American countries from 2000 to
2016 test the overarching predictions (Carlin et al. 2016).
Models first show a negative impact of being a female—
rather than a male—president on citizen evaluations, con-
trolling for several political and economic confounders.
Marginal effects plots from interaction models reveal that
female presidents score worse than male presidents in
contexts of at least one scandal and medium to high levels
of executive corruption.
Implications are far-reaching and troubling. The mere
presence of women in politics is thought to erode tradi-
tional beliefs about women’s inability to govern, and
chief executives, positioned in the highest offices and
attracting the most media attention, may exert the stron-
gest symbolic effects (Franceschet, Annesley, and
Beckwith 2017; Reyes-Housholder and Schwindt-Bayer
2016). However, if citizens perceive female presidents as
less “successful” than male presidents—particularly on
corruption issues where citizens thought these women
would be more effective—public support for women in
politics may erode. This could affect future female candi-
dacies not only for presidential but also for gubernatorial,
legislative and local offices. In short, rather than foment-
ing a “virtuous cycle” (A. C. Alexander 2012), the recent
rise of female presidents could entail a backlash against
women in politics, slowing or even reversing gains in
gender equality. In contrast to much of the largely san-
guine literature on female leaders (Genovese and
Steckenrider 2013; Jalalzai 2008; Skard 2015), this study
presents a more cautionary tale of the consequences of
female-led administrations.
Existing Research on Gender,
Ratings, and Corruption
Research on the performance of female chief executives
has examined whether they name more women minis-
ters, promote more pro-women policies, and issue fewer
unilateral decrees (O’Brien et al. 2015; Reyes-
Housholder 2016, 2019; Shair-Rosenfield and Stoyan
2018). Some work suggests that female presidents score
lower in public opinion surveys (Carlin, Carreras, and
Love forthcoming; Reyes-Housholder and Thomas
2018), but scholars have yet to systematically theorize
and probe relationships connecting presidents’ gender,
corruption scandals, and approval ratings. Three per-
spectives make competing predictions as to whether citi-
zens will rate female presidents differently from their
male counterparts.
Foundational works suggest that the (over)valuing of
masculine leadership styles means that citizens will judge
women more harshly than men (Duerst-Lahti and Kelly
1995; Jamieson 1995; O’Brien and Reyes-Housholder
forthcoming). Prescriptive role stereotypes dictate how
presidents, men, and women should behave (Prentice and
Carranza 2002), and traits desirable for presidents tend to
overlap with traits desirable for males, for example,
forceful and aggressive (Rosenwasser and Dean 1989).
Women presidents can hardly fulfill expectations to act
both “presidential” and “feminine” without facing public
reprobation for deviating from behaviors assigned to one
of their social roles. The dilemma evokes “double binds.”
Citizens moreover form opinions of their presidents via
sexist media, which will likely assess female presidents
more negatively (Falk 2010; Shorenstein 1997).
This pessimistic viewpoint, which anticipates female
presidents to unduly receive worse ratings, contrasts with
much of the latest research. Influential survey experi-
ments demonstrate that gendered standards and double
binds do not hurt female politicians (Brooks 2013; Teele,
Kalla, and Rosenbluth 2018), and observational studies
show that voters do not penalize women candidates
(Dolan 2014). Some have pointed to these results, derived
mostly from legislative candidates, to draw conclusions
about the diminishing power of gender stereotypes for
presidential candidates (Teele, Kalla, and Rosenbluth
2018). This view posits a relatively neutral role of gender
in predicting that citizens will evaluate female and male
presidents not according to whether they meet gendered
expectations, but instead whether they perform well
according to more objective indicators of good gover-
nance, such as macroeconomic performance.
A third perspective is even more sanguine: some gen-
dered beliefs—such as women’s competence on “com-
passion” issues, their ability to emotionally connect with
voters, and their potential to instigate change—benefit
female politicians (Barnes and Beaulieu 2014; Huddy
and Terkildsen 1993; Murray 2010). Ideas concerning
women’s comparative advantages not only may help
women win elections (Reyes-Housholder 2018), but they
also could buoy their popularity. This perspective further
suggests that women who “shatter the highest glass ceil-
ing” necessarily display extraordinary political skills
(Genovese and Steckenrider 2013; Jalalzai 2008; Skard
2015). Efficacious management of gendered expectations
and strategic leveraging of “pro-women” stereotypes

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