Good news for women in politics: Most Americans are unlikely to discount your expertise regarding national security simply because you’re female.
Abstract gender stereotypes do not impact people’s decision to vote for female candidates “in any meaningful way,” according to research published this month in Political Research Quarterly.
“Beyond the interplay between political party and stereotypes in shaping evaluations of women candidates, these data provide little evidence that people take any traditional gender stereotypes they may hold and translate them directly into a decision to vote for or against a woman candidate,” Kathleen Dolan of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee explained in her study.
Previous research has found that voters tend to believe men are experts on crime, economic, national security, and immigration policy, while women are experts on education, child care, health care, and abortion issues. Male politicians are also stereotyped as being divisive and assertive, while female politicians are stereotyped as being compassionate and consensus-builders.
But whether these traditional gender stereotypes affected the evaluation of individual real-life candidates remained unclear.
For her study, Dolan surveyed 3,150 adults in the run up to the 2010 elections, when a record number of women ran for office.
She found gender stereotypes had no significant impact on the evaluations of individual female candidates, with one exception. Those who held traditional gender stereotypes evaluated female Democratic House candidates as less competent regarding stereotypical “men’s issues.” Female Republican House candidates, on the other hand, were seen as just as competent as their male opponents regarding stereotypical “men’s issues.” The fact that Republicans are typically perceived as strong on national security and crime likely blunted the effect of female stereotypes.
Along with examining the relationship between gender stereotypes and candidate evaluations, Dolan also examined whether stereotypes influenced vote choice. But again, she found little evidence that gender stereotypes had a significant impact on who people decided to vote for. The candidate’s political affiliation, however, was consistently the most important factor.
Like any study, Dolan’s research is limited in scope. In her study, she warned against interpreting the findings too broadly. Though gender stereotypes don’t appear to be a major influence on people in the voting booth, it possible that stereotypes “exert an influence on other stages of the electoral process,” Dolan wrote in her study.
“While it is clear that the analysis presented here suggests a need for more nuanced thinking about the potential power of abstract gender stereotypes in American politics, nothing about this project seeks to make the claim that gender no longer matters to the fate of women candidates,” she explained.