By Nichole Bauer (Louisiana State University)
The 2018 mid-term elections will be a banner year for women in politics. In fact, as many as 421 women could launch a campaign for a seat in the U.S. House. Even more women will run for office at the local level. In research recently published in Urban Affairs Review, I examined whether female candidates running in local elections will face a gender bias or a gender advantage among voters. Using two original survey experiments, I find that female candidates do not necessarily have an automatic advantage in a local election. Female candidates, however, will have an advantage when they emphasize positive masculine traits that voters value in political leaders.
Gender Stereotypes at the Local Level
Among gender and politics scholars, there is an assumption that female candidates will have a gender advantage when running in a local election because the issues and responsibilities of local officeholders align with the stereotypic strengths of women. For example, local officeholders often engage in high levels of constituency service—a supportive behavior that reflects the stereotypic strengths of women. Research on political leaders at the local level, however, finds that local politics requires a lot of masculine traits, such as the ability to attract economic development which often involves competition with other cities. I test these two perspectives to identify the role of gender stereotypes in not only evaluations of female political candidates but to also understand the role of gender stereotypes in local elections.
An Experimental Test of Gender Stereotypes in Local Elections
I designed a series of survey experiments to test whether female candidates have an advantage over male candidates in local electoral races. The experiments presented participants with hypothetical female and male candidates running for a city council seat. An experiment is particularly useful because there is little data measuring how citizens think about candidates at these lower levels of political office. Both experiments presented participants with hypothetical candidate websites which described the candidate as having feminine traits, masculine traits, or no traits at all. I randomly assigned participants from a national sample of adults to one of the six experimental conditions. After viewing the website, participants rated the candidate’s level of experience and whether the candidate would be a good representative of constituent opinion.
First, do female candidates have an automatic gender advantage? The results suggest that female candidates do not. Does emphasizing feminine traits boost the female candidate’s evaluation? Or, do female candidates benefit more from masculine traits? The results from this first experiment, displayed in Figure 1, show that female candidates receive the most positive evaluations when emphasizing masculine traits. The. female candidate’s rating on experience is 6.5% higher in the masculine trait condition relative to the feminine trait condition and her rating is 5.6% higher on being a good representative of constituent opinion in the feminine trait condition. These results suggest that voters do not think about local offices as feminine political offices. Rather, voters look for masculine candidates to handle the challenges of local political governance.
Figure 1: The Effects of Feminine and Masculine Traits
The first experiment excluded partisan labels. The second experiment mimicked the design of the first experiment with one change: I identified the candidates as either Democrats or Republicans. Figure 2, below, shows the difference in the female candidate’s ratings in the masculine trait relative to the feminine trait condition. Democratic female candidates do just as well in both the feminine and masculine trait conditions. Republican female candidates have the most to gain from highlighting. masculine traits. The Republican female candidate’s experience rating increases by 8.9% and increases by 9.2% on being a good representative of constituent opinion in the masculine trait condition relative to the feminine trait condition.
Figure 2: Feminine & Masculine Traits across Female Candidate Partisanship
Together, the findings from these two experiments show that voters do not value feminine qualities in local political leaders. In local elections, voters look for and value candidates, especially female candidates, with masculine traits. These findings shed light on the role that gender stereotypes play for female candidates running in local offices, and suggest that voters think about holding local office as a masculine endeavor.
Strategies for Maximizing Electoral Success
These results have broad implications for the hundreds, if not thousands, of female candidates who will run for a local, state, or national elected office in the 2018 mid-term elections, and beyond. Many of the women entering the political pipeline are motivated to run for political office because they are women. But, female candidates will not necessarily have an automatic gender advantage in local elections. Feminine stereotypes simply do not comport with the masculine expectations voters hold for political leaders. But, the good news is that female candidates running in local elections will benefit tremendously from emphasizing their qualities as tough, strong, and aggressive women.
Nichole Bauer is an assistant professor of political communication in the Department of Political Science and the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Bauer’s research investigates how voters form impressions of political candidates. Her current work analyzes the role of gender stereotypes in political campaigns. Bauer’s research appears in Political Psychology, Political Behavior, and Political Research Quarterly among other outlets. You can read more about her research at http://www.nicholebauer.com