Women Candidates and Psychology: Breaking the Stereotypes

By Catherine Maines

The election on Tuesday is forecasted to likely see record numbers of women elected across the country, potentially surpassing the already record-high of 107 women in the current Congress. But with more women running – and winning – than ever before, even the most optimistic models show a Capitol only 23% female by this time next week. Historical and structural barriers help explain the basis of this imbalance, but there is still more to the story of why women have a harder time getting elected. Like most things, there is psychological work that can further help elucidate the continuation of this gendered inequality – with the caveat that much of the research (and somewhat consequently, this article), to its limitation, does tend to deal with gender in a mostly binary sense.

Essentially, stereotyping works by assuming a social group has a core set of shared beliefs and character traits and depersonalizing an individual to view them as a member of their social group interchangeable from other members. Gender roles are stereotypes, but they are also norms. They go from the descriptive (“women are…”) to the injunctive (“women should be…”). Though they are not necessarily subscribed to or acted upon, people generally have a shared understanding of what they are. Because we often think and make decisions heuristically (by using rules of thumb rather than fully weighing each evaluation), these stereotyped female roles are drawn upon and reinforced. The tendency to categorize individuals into social groups (e.g. on the basis of gender) becomes particularly interesting when viewed within a social system (e.g. in US politics) in which status and power are not equally distributed between groups. Being a member of a social group which is the consistent minority – particularly one from which there is (generally) no leaving – has repercussions for conceptualizing identity.

Shared cultural stereotypes are ubiquitous, but only at certain points do they get drawn upon and impact upon the ways in which people live their lives. Identity contingencies (something a person deals with because of a given social identity) affect members of minority groups by creating things they have to manage throughout the entirety of their lives – things that members of non-minority groups don’t have to consider. Female representatives working in a Congress which is 80% male often face a different set of rules which constrain behavior, requiring them to develop a set of strategies for dealing with scenarios – from unwarranted questions about their experience to unwanted sexual advances – that their male counterparts generally don’t have to face.

Women running for office also face gendered prejudices based on cognitive incongruences between the perceived capabilities of their social group and the requirements of certain roles – meaning political leadership positions require certain abilities, these abilities don’t align with the stereotype of women, so therefore women in political leadership roles are more likely to be negatively evaluated.

Eagly & Karau propose that a perceived mismatch between “female” and “leader” roles lead to two connected forms of prejudice: women are seen as less suitable for leadership than men, and “leadership behavior” is evaluated more negatively when it is performed by a woman. There can be a catch-22 for female politicians: leadership ability seems to be related to male traits, so female candidates aren’t evaluated as fitting the descriptive norm of a leader, and when they do achieve success they violate an injunctive norm by not embodying what we expect from women.

We saw this play out in 2016 – in the pitch of her voice and in her signature pantsuit, Hillary Clinton consciously conformed to the pre-existing (and therefore, masculine) image of what a president “should” look like. No one questioned her qualifications for the role, but pundits and voters alike saw her as personally inauthentic and questioned the suitability of her character.

This dichotomy can become cyclic in nature: women who want to lead might consciously downplay their feminine traits, and therefore reinforce the idea that “feminine” and “leader” identities are incongruent. And for those who attempt to hold both “female” and “leader” identities, there remains a stereotype threat: when there’s a negative stereotype associated with an individual’s identity, they will tend to underperform in a way that fulfils that negative stereotype.

And none of these are issues that male politicians have to face.

However, this disadvantage is dependent upon stereotypes of women, and perceptions of what leadership roles require – and both are things that we can change. If we want to change the parameters of what a “conventional politician” looks like, we can change the practice of reaching out exclusively to the “conventional voter” – and instead, expand the electorate.

With Congress’ membership being only 20% female – and only 8% women of color – there is still a visible gender disparity in Washington. But, things are looking up. Last November, my home state of Virginia saw a record number of diverse candidates elected across the ballot throughout the state. The number of female candidates has risen enormously since the 2016 election and might increase still in upcoming cycles in fueled by the Kavanaugh nomination. And several women (Stacey Abrams, Kyrsten Sinema, Gina Ortiz Jones, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez…) have made their difference from conventional “male” leadership prototypes central to their campaigns – and achieved notable success.

“This election is the most important in our lifetime” has been over-stated by every quasi-political public figure and over-saturated social media timelines for good reason. It really looks like we’re on the precipice of change again, but it only comes if people get out of their homes (and off Twitter) and do the work to uphold the momentum and make it happen. Of the 238 women running for the House this cycle, 186 are Democrats. We’ve been the party to lead in consistently advancing the number of women in Washington, and on Tuesday we can continue the trend by electing Democrats across the ticket, throughout the country.

  • Catherine Maines