Are Women Political Candidates Treated Differently? Duh.

Are Women Political Candidates Treated Differently? Duh.

Created: 12 October, 2020
Last update: 14 August, 2022

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Let’s conduct a brief experiment. Read the following statements about candidates for elected office and try to guess who they describe:

  • “He needs ways to respond without appearing defensive or brittle, his advisers say.”
  • “Four years of his nasal voice could lead to mass suicides across the nation.”
  • “His speaking style has a hard lecturing tone, like you’ve been called into the principal’s office.”
  • "Will Americans want to watch a man get older before their eyes on a daily basis?"
  • “I just don’t think he has a presidential look.” 
  • “Another angry man wins Senate nomination” (from a newspaper headline). 

All of these statements are real, but we made one small change: the gender of the person being described.  They were all written or said about women running for office. Didn’t they seem out of line, even ridiculous, when you thought they were written about men? 

San Diego mayoral candidates Barbara Bry and Todd Gloria participated in a televised debate. When she tried to rebut a point by her opponent, viewers commented on social media that Bry’s “shouting at the moderator” was “offensive and Trumpian.” This comment was made by a woman.

The recent vice presidential debate between nominee Sen. Kamala Harris and incumbent Vice President Mike Pence was the second most watched VP debate in American history according to the Nielsen Company, second only to Sarah Palin and Joe Biden’s debate in 2008. Although it’s been 12 years, both Palin and Harris drew more criticism on style points than policy statements.

Harris was described after the debate as “abrasive,” “not smiling enough,” “flighty,” “not likeable,” and infamously by President Donald Trump, “a monster.” She drew derision for her facial expressions responding to statements by her opponent. 

Likewise, coverage of Palin was more likely to include references to her family, physical appearance and social issues than coverage of her opponent. At least there has been some progress: Harris sticks with a uniform of dark pantsuits so neutral the din over her fashion choices has died off. Thank goodness for small favors. 

Find More Election 2020 Coverage Here

In 1972 when Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York ran for president against 12 male candidates, she said “Of my two handicaps, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black.” Chisholm paved the way for so many breakthroughs by women running for public office in the nearly 50 years since then. But not all of them.

Imagine male candidates being scrutinized for showing their age, especially in the 2020 presidential race with two record-breaking 70-somethings squaring off.  Imagine being questioned about their commitment to the job if they also have minor children. 

Thankfully, the critical mass of female candidates running for and winning public office at every level from school board to mayor to governor to president are starting to overwhelm the stereotypes.

But all of them are still subject to the tightrope-walking contest of professional women everywhere. Physical appearance, clothing choices, demeanor, parenthood, and “likeability” are all fair game for criticism. 

In a February 2020 study published in the academic publication Journal of Communication, an analysis of 25,000 elected officials in 750,000 media stories demonstrated gender bias when reporting on women. Media reports were more likely to focus on private life and family, gender stereotypical traits and issues, appearance, and viability than male candidates. Gender is more often mentioned. “Combative behavior” is exaggerated.

But it isn’t only men who engage in these judgments of women candidates. In the past few weeks, women voters have told me “I just don’t like her” in connection with their decision on whether to vote for a woman candidate. 

We can rant all we like about biases in media coverage. But as with most social movements, the changes need to begin with each of us as individuals, starting with our public comments while watching debates for San Diego’s federal, state and local offices. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) addresses the issue of gender bias in elections and offers tools to help combat it. It includes age-appropriate discussion guidance, along with suggested individual and group actions to identify and reduce sexism. 

Catch yourself and catch your family and friends when discussing women running for public office. Are you discussing their appearance, tone of voice, or whether you “like” them as the basis for a voting decision? Stop and reframe your discussion. Talk about their policies and proposals, and learn about their voting record on the issues. If you don’t like these, so be it. 

All citizens would be far better served by their elected officials if they stopped judging their hairstyles, pantsuits or whether they ever raise their voices. Mansplaining? Fair game. 

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About the Author

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, Fellow PRSA, is an award-winning independent public relations consultant based in San Diego and a member of the San Diego Regional East County Chamber of Commerce.