The double standard for female candidates continues

The double standard for female candidates continues
Lorie Shaull/U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at L.A.'s Families Belong Together March by lukeharold is licensed under CC CC0 1.0 / Rally at US Sen 0196 Senator Elizabeth Warren" by mdfriendofhillary is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Although Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has managed to maintain her presence as a top-tier candidate in the Democratic presidential primary alongside three white men, several female candidates with impressive resumes have struggled to break through with voters throughout the contest. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar made the December debate stage, but she has lingered in single-digit support despite being a senator and a former prosecutor. Still, Klobuchar has fared better than two other skilled female candidates who have since dropped out: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who served as her state's attorney general.


Harris and Klobuchar have both showcased their prosecutorial chops at Senate hearings when questioning witnesses such as Attorney General Bill Barr and then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The fact that accomplished and savvy female candidates have struggled in the Democratic primary is especially glaring in comparison to the top-tier male candidates. Warren, for instance, has faced accusations by her rivals that she's too divisive and angry—an age-old smear against women—while Vice President Joe Biden wasted no time several weeks ago telling an Iowa voter at a town hall, "You're a damn liar."

Klobuchar has made the pointed and undoubtedly true observation that any woman with as thin a resume as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s would never have been able to thrive in the primary the way he has.

While it's likely too simple to suggest that female candidates haven't caught on in the Democratic primary solely due to sexism, it does seem fair to say that women still face a higher bar due to sexist stereotypes and almost surely pay a higher price for every mistake made in the course of a candidacy.

FiveThirtyEight recently took a look at the way sexism continues to plague our politics, and here are several takeaways.

Female candidates bear the burden of higher ethical expectations than men

Amanda Hunter, the research and communications director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonprofit group that researches gender bias and elections, said that voters assume that women candidates are more ethical and honest than men, which can be a bonus until women candidates do something that makes them seem like they have something to hide. “Because voters expect women to be more virtuous and straightforward, they’re more likely to hold it against female candidates when their honesty is questioned,” Hunter said. That “pedestal effect,” she added, may have hurt Harris when she was attacked for going back and forth on issues like health care.

Sex stereotypes work against women who are viewed as too aggressive

For instance, voters often want a leader who is perceived as aggressive, but aggression in women can also be perceived as threatening. Harris was known for her direct, prosecutorial style and Bauer said that her identity as a woman of color may have put her in an even tighter bind. “Black women are often stereotyped as angry or militant,” Bauer said. It’s hard to isolate exactly why Harris’s plunge in the polls was so dramatic and decisive, she added, but “if there was a negative reaction to her attack on Biden at the debate, those stereotypes may have played a role.”

Female candidates that succeed usually have better credentials than male candidates, but being too qualified can also become a liability

Bauer’s newest study showed that voters generally hold female candidates to a higher standard than men, which reinforces other work indicating that although women do tend to win at the same rate as men, they’re often more qualified than their male counterparts. ... a study by Tessa Ditonto, a political scientist at the University of Durham, showed that when participants received a piece of information indicating a woman was less competent, her support fell dramatically — but there was no similar impact for men. “It speaks to the idea that voters tend to be more uncertain about women candidates,” Ditonto said.

[...]

“For women to get the right kind of experience to be taken seriously, they have to behave like men,” Bauer said. “But then that behavior is often scrutinized and criticized more harshly than it would be in a man, because it runs counter to what our stereotypes of a woman should be.”

Perceptions of sexism among voters have a cascading effect

According to two polls by the left-leaning group Avalanche Strategy, for instance, Warren is more popular when voters are asked to pick which candidate would be their favorite if they could magically bypass the general election, which suggests that some voters still have concerns about her viability despite her rise.

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