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date: 04 December 2020

Gender Stereotyping in Political Decision Makingfree

  • Nichole M. BauerNichole M. BauerDepartment of Political Communication, Louisiana State University


Women are under-represented at every level of elected office in the United States. As of 2018, women held just under 20% of seats in Congress, 25% of state legislative seats across the country, only six women serve as governor, and, of course, a woman has yet to win the presidency. The political under-representation of women is not unique to the American context. Indeed, women’s under-representation is a feature of other Western Democracies. Even under the leadership of female prime ministers, women hold only 32% of seats in the United Kingdom parliament and 31% of seats in the German parliament. Conventional wisdom suggests that feminine stereotypes may disadvantage female candidates. Feminine stereotypes characterize women as sensitive, emotional, and weak, and these are qualities voters do not traditionally associate with political leadership. Rather, voters associate political leadership with masculine traits such as being tough, aggressive, or assertive. The extent to which voters use these stereotypes in political decision making in the American context is not entirely clear.

There are three ways that feminine and masculine stereotypes can affect political decision making: candidate strategies, campaign news coverage, and vote choice decision. The alignment between masculine stereotypes and political leadership frequently pressures female candidates to emphasize masculine qualities over feminine qualities in campaign messages. Motivating these masculine messages is the perception that voters see female candidates as lacking the masculine qualities voters desire in political leaders. Male candidates, because of the alignment between masculinity and leadership roles, do not face this pressure. Female candidates will, however, highlight feminine stereotypes when these strategies will afford them a distinct electoral advantage. The use of masculinity in candidate strategy leads the news media, in turn, to use masculine stereotypes rather than feminine stereotypes in their coverage of both female and male candidates.

The ways that candidates and the news media engage with gender stereotypes affects how voters use these concepts to form impressions of female and male candidates. Voters will use feminine stereotypes as heuristics to form impressions of the ideological and issue priorities of female candidates. Feminine stereotypes can hurt the electoral prospects of female candidates, but the negative effect of feminine stereotypes only occurs under a limited set of conditions. Voters will use feminine stereotypes to rate female candidates negatively when female candidates explicitly emphasize feminine qualities, such as being warm or compassionate, in campaign messages. But, voters respond positively to female candidates who emphasize positive masculine qualities. In sum, whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision-making depends on the extent to which voters see messages, either from campaigns or the news media, that reflect femininity or masculinity.

Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination to the U.S. presidency, her presidential campaign, and subsequent electoral loss leads to an obvious yet important question: Did gender stereotypes contribute to her electoral defeat? Stereotypes about the appropriate norms and behaviors for women and men often came appeared as voters rated Clinton and her opponent. Voters rated Clinton negatively on qualities such as trustworthiness, a quality that fits into broader stereotypes about women (Prentice & Carranza, 2002), but voters also saw Clinton as having ample political experience to prepare her for the presidency, a quality that voters tend to see lacking in female candidates (Schneider & Bos, 2014). The negative rating on trust and positive rating on experience suggests that voters had a difficult time seeing Clinton as a candidate with both feminine and masculine qualities. Clinton’s opponent was not immune to criticisms: Voters saw Trump as untrustworthy, politically inexperienced, and quick to engage in displays of “hyper-masculinity.” Yet, these negative perceptions did not undercut Trump’s electoral support among many voters. The full extent to which gender stereotypes affected Clinton’s loss and propelled Trump to victory is the subject of considerable debate among campaign strategies and political pundits. This debate mirrors the ambiguity in scholarly research about whether gender stereotypes affect how voters form impressions of female candidates running for national, state, and local government.

Empirical comparisons find that women in the United States win elections at the same rates as men (Seltzer, Newman, & Leighton, 1997), but vote total comparisons do not lend insight into whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision making. Extant scholarship offers conflicting conclusions on this point. A number of studies reason that gender stereotypes do not affect voter decision making because partisanship matters more to voters (Brooks, 2013; Dolan, 2014; Hayes, 2011). But other research illustrates that gender stereotypes can affect voter decision making under a limited set of conditions (Ditonto, Hamilton, & Redlawsk, 2014; Mo, 2015; Schneider & Bos, 2014), and often these stereotypes reduce support for female candidates (Bauer, 2015b; Ditonto, 2017). The conditional use of gender stereotypes suggests that the messages voters receive can affect stereotype reliance (McGraw, 2003).

This manuscript outlines how and when gender stereotypes affect political decision making. The article begins by defining gender stereotypes and explaining how these concepts reflect conceptions of political leadership. There are three questions to address regarding the role of gender stereotypes in political decision making. First, how do candidates leverage gender stereotypes in campaign strategies? Second, how do the news media use gender stereotypes in coverage of political candidates? Third, how and when do voters use gender stereotypes? The final section outlines a series of future research questions that can deepen our understanding about how gender stereotypes affect the electoral process.

Clarifying the role of gender stereotypes in voter decision making matters because stereotypes can lead to bias against female contenders and thereby perpetuate the vast under- representation of women in political office. As of 2018, women hold less than 20% of seats in the U.S. House and the Senate; just under 25% of seats, on average, across American state legislatures; and only six women serve as governor (CAWP, 2016). The United States is not alone in its under-representation of women. Other Western Democracies also under-represent women. For example, women hold only 32% of the seats in the British parliament and 31% of seats in Germany’s parliament even though women serve as prime ministers in both these countries. The dearth of women in elected office has expansive implications for the substantive representation of women. Female lawmakers have been shown to advance the social, political, and economic policy interests of women (Holman, 2014; Swers, 2013). Thus, the paucity of women in political office directly affects the women’s well-being.

Defining Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes encompass a set of behaviors and traits attributed separately to women and men. Feminine stereotypes characterize women as caring, sensitive, and weak and more likely to engage in supportive and compassionate behaviors (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). The assignment of these particular traits to women comes from the performance of women in supportive social roles that require compassion or kindness, such as being a homemaker or caregiver (Eagly, 1987). Masculine stereotypes characterize men as tough, aggressive, ambitious, and more likely to engage in behaviors that reflect power and authority (Heilman, 2001). Similar to women, the designation of these traits as masculine comes from the performance of men in agentic social roles that require decisiveness or strength, such as being a business or political leader (Koenig et al., 2011; Vinkenburg et al., 2011).

Feminine and masculine stereotypes are politically consequential because masculine stereotypes comport with the expectations voters have for political leaders, while feminine stereotypes clash with conceptions of political leadership (Rosenwasser & Seale, 1988; Alexander & Anderson, 1993; Conroy, 2015b). Some feminine traits, such as being honest or fair, fit into the expectations voters hold for political leaders (Bishin, Stevens, & Wilson, 2006; Funk, 1999; Miller, Wattenberg, & Malanchuk, 1986), but voters see feminine traits as less important secondary leadership characteristics, while masculine traits are primary characteristics for political leaders (Funk, 1999; Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993b). The high level of congruence between being male, having masculine traits, and being a leader (Eagly & Karau, 2002) means that voters will be more likely to assume men have the qualities needed to excel in political leadership, while voters may see female candidates as lacking the qualities needed for political leaders (Bauer, 2013; Bos, Schneider, & Utz, 2017). Of course, just because stereotypes about who is fit to serve in leadership exist does not mean that voters always use these stereotypes in decision making. The next two sections outline how candidates and the news media use gender stereotypes, and the subsequent section shows how the emergence of stereotypes in campaign communication affects voter decision making.

Gender stereotypes, in a political context, include non-trait stereotypes. Voters see female candidates as having a high level of expertise on issues that fit into the communal social roles traditionally held by women (Alexander & Anderson, 1993; Rosenwasser et al., 1987). Issues such as education and social welfare policy reflect government taking on a “compassionate” and “caregiving” role, which reflects the communal roles of women (Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993b). Voters also see female candidates as more ideologically liberal than male candidates (McDermott, 1997, 1998). This ideological association with liberality also reflects the communal roles of women given that a liberal ideology espouses a “caregiving” role of government in individual lives (Koch, 2000). The issue strengths of male candidates also come from the agentic social roles conventionally held by men. Voters ascribe male candidates and politicians as having a high level of expertise on national security and defense (Holman, Merolla, & Zechmeister, 2016)—issues that reflect the “protector” roles of men. These non-trait political stereotypes are not necessarily part of how citizens stereotype women more generally, but they are stereotypes that are highly salient in a political context.

Candidate Reliance on Gender Stereotypes

Candidates use campaign ads, stump speeches, and rallies to frame themselves in a positive light and to persuade voters to support their candidacies (Fenno, 1978; McGraw, 2003; Popkin, 1994). As such, candidates will decide whether to highlight feminine or masculine stereotypes based on the extent to which they believe such stereotypes will provide an electoral advantage. Analyses of how candidates formulate campaign strategies suggest that female and male candidates hold different perspectives on the benefits of emphasizing gender stereotypes. Female candidates believe feminine stereotypes will undermine their candidacies but that they may face a punishment for being too masculine (Dittmar, 2015; Lawless & Fox, 2010). The result is that many analyses find that the gender stereotype content of female candidate strategies reflect the strategies of male candidates (Carlson, 2001; Dolan, 2014), but this does not mean that candidate sex does not motivate the way female candidates formulate messages.

Some content analyses of campaign websites and television ads find that female candidates emphasize feminine traits and feminine issues more frequently than they emphasize masculine traits and issues (Fridkin & Kenney, 2015; Herrnson, Lay, & Stokes, 2003; Herrick, 2016; Kahn, 1993; Schneider, 2014b). These comparisons rely on a within-candidate sex analysis, comparing whether female candidates emphasize feminine or masculine qualities more frequently, rather than examining whether female candidates behave differently than male candidates. In fact, it appears both female and male candidates emphasize masculine traits and issues over feminine traits and issues (Bystrom, 2010; Dolan & Lynch, 2017; Dolan, 2005, 2014; Sapiro et al., 2011). These seemingly divergent conclusions may come from differences in comparisons within candidate sex versus across candidate sex. Female candidates may be more likely to rely on feminine stereotypes relative to male candidates, but female candidates may use masculine stereotypes more frequently than feminine stereotypes in their own campaign strategies.

Another way to think about the formation of candidate strategy is to consider the influence of a candidate’s partisanship. American voters stereotype the political parties along gendered lines. Stereotypes of the Democratic Party match feminine stereotypes while stereotypes about the Republican Party match masculine stereotypes (Hayes, 2005; Winter, 2010). Some evidence suggests that partisanship is a primary driver of the way that candidates use feminine and masculine stereotypes in campaign messages (Dolan, 2014). If partisan concerns drive candidate evaluations then female candidates should engage in comparable strategies as their co- partisan male counterparts. In other words, Democratic women and men will highlight feminine traits and issues while Republican women and men will highlight masculine traits and issues. However, other research finds that both Democrats and Republicans frequently highlight both feminine and masculine traits (Fridkin & Kenney, 2015; Schneider, 2014b).

Research generally assumes that male candidates behave as strategic actors who respond to the campaign environment when developing campaign strategies, but this assumption does not always extend to work on female candidate strategy. Scholarship on female candidate strategy often focuses on the candidate’s sex as the sole factor shaping decisions to avoid or embrace gender stereotypes. A growing body of scholarship, however, reveals that female candidates rely on feminine and masculine stereotypes based on the competitiveness of a race or the behavior of an opponent. For example, Windett (2014) found that female candidates only emphasize feminine issues when facing pressure from male opponents. Candidates, female and male, may also rely on feminine stereotypes to secure support from female voters (Holman, Schneider, & Pondel, 2015; Kam, Archer, & Geer, 2017; Schaffner, 2005; Searles et al., 2017). Finally, the level or type of office at stake (e.g., a local versus national office or a legislative versus executive office) can also factor into the decisions female candidates make to highlight feminine or masculine stereotypes. Fox and Oxley (2003) found that feminine stereotypes can benefit female candidates running for state-level executive offices because stereotypical women’s issues are more prominent at this level. The conflicting findings in the literature about whether female candidates incorporate feminine or masculine stereotypes indicates that female candidates may rely on both approaches, depending on the electoral context.

The most prevalent method of gauging stereotype reliance treats the use of feminine and masculine stereotypes as an either/or proposition. This approach implicitly assumes that female and male candidates rely exclusively on one stereotype strategy. It is entirely possible that female and male candidates rely on both feminine and masculine stereotypes over the duration of a campaign. Bauer (2015a) reasons that female candidates adopt a “balancing approach” to stereotype reliance where they accentuate both masculine and feminine stereotypes in campaign messages. This approach allows female candidates to balance competing expectations that they be both feminine and masculine. Thus, female candidates may not necessarily turn to feminine stereotypes simply because they are women, and male candidates do not use masculine stereotypes simply because they are men.

The literature offers divided conclusions about when female candidates incorporate feminine or masculine stereotypes in campaign communication. This empirical conflict suggests female and male candidates may follow a conditional model of gender stereotype reliance. Under some conditions, candidates use feminine stereotypes; and under other conditions, candidates use masculine stereotypes. The effect of candidate communication on voter decision making is contingent on the news media amplifying the candidate’s message. The next section analyzes how the news media evoke gender stereotypes in campaign news coverage, including the extent to which female and male candidates can shape the content of campaign news.

News Media Reliance on Gender Stereotypes

A substantial amount of the information voters receive about political candidates comes through the news media, whether televised news, online, or print publication (Shaw, 2008; West, 2014). Using feminine or masculine stereotypes in candidate coverage can shape how voters use these concepts to evaluate candidates. There are two ways the news media can affect voter decision making. First, the news media can engage in different patterns of coverage for female relative to male candidates. Second, there can be a lack of agenda convergence where there is a disjuncture between news coverage and a campaign’s central message.

Evidence from recent elections indicates the news media rarely use feminine stereotypes to describe female candidates; rather, the news media use masculine stereotypes more frequently to describe both female and male candidates (Hayes & Lawless, 2015). Moreover, there are no significant differences in the quantity of coverage received by candidates (Hayes & Lawless, 2016). These newer findings of no influence of gender stereotypes in the American context deviate from earlier studies that found that female candidates received more horserace coverage and more coverage on feminine traits and feminine issues (Kahn, 1992, 1993). News coverage in the decade after the proverbial “Year of the Woman” in 1992 covered female candidates differently from male candidates, in part, because of news values and norms. News values and norms dictate that the media cover events and political actors that are atypical, and in the 1990s, female candidates were certainly atypical candidates. A steady stream of female candidates over the past 25 years of American elections, including a female presidential nominee, means that these candidacies are no longer novel. Other democracies that are less candidate-focused and have higher rates of women’s representation relative to the American context find, however, that gender stereotypes are prevalent in news coverage of female candidates (Kittilson & Fridkin, 2008). Contrary to Hayes and Lawless, increasing women’s political representation may lead to more and not fewer gender stereotypes in news coverage (Matland, 1994).

The lack of differences in the coverage received by female and male candidates does not mean that gender stereotypes are absent from elections. The extensive focus on masculine stereotypes reinforces the perception that politics is a masculine institution (Conroy, 2015b). Masculine news coverage sends two signals to political candidates and to voters. First, the masculine content of news coverage signals to candidates that feminine stereotypes have little value in politics. This perception can lead female candidates to highlight masculine over feminine qualities to garner more news coverage. Second, using masculine stereotypes to characterize female and male candidates reinforces the role incongruity between being female and being a political leader. Even though the news media talk about the same type of issues and traits in candidate coverage does not necessarily mean that voters will respond to the information in a gender-neutral way.

Aside from explicit trait and issue references, there are other ways the news media can reinforce gender stereotypes. The news media discuss candidate personality traits, regardless of whether those traits are feminine or masculine, more frequently when a female candidate is on the ballot while races with two male candidates are more likely to receive coverage about substantive policies (Dunaway et al., 2013). Female candidates are also more likely to receive coverage of their hair, clothes, or shoes relative to male candidates (Burns, Eberhardt, & Merolla, 2013; Heldman, Carroll, & Stephanie, 2005). Recent analyses suggest this more superficial type of campaign coverage may be dissipating when it comes to coverage of down-ballot candidates (Hayes & Lawless, 2016). Analyses of high profile female candidates, such as Sarah Palin in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016, find evidence of superficial news coverage (Burns, Eberhardt, & Merolla, 2013; Conroy, 2015a; Falk, 2010). Hayes and Lawless (2016) reasoned that the subtle sexism exhibited in news coverage of high-profile female contenders are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, the visibility of high-profile female candidates can still shape how voters use gender stereotypes to evaluate less visible political women.

Much of the research on the tone, quality, and quantity of candidate news coverage focuses on differences across candidate sex, and does not consider how the intersection of race and gender shape news coverage of female candidates. White female candidates are less likely to receive novelty news coverage in the present compared to the 1990s (Hayes & Lawless, 2016; Kahn, 1996), but minority women still receive novelty news coverage—if covered at all (Gershon, 2012; Ward, 2016). Again, news norms that value the unusual or atypical in a story can create these differences across candidate race and ethnicity. News coverage that draws attention to candidate race and/or gender can exacerbate the perception that minority women are political outsiders who do not fit conventional perceptions of political leadership.

A second way the news media can cover female and male candidates differently is through a lack of agenda convergence. Agenda convergence refers to the extent to which the news coverage of a candidate reflects the message of the candidate’s campaign (Hayes, 2008, 2010; Ridout & Mellen, 2007; Sides, 2007). If news media do not accurately report the female candidate’s central campaign message, this could indicate bias in reporting—especially if convergence is more likely to occur for male candidates. Measuring agenda convergence between candidates and campaigns indicates that female candidates frequently emphasize feminine stereotypes (Fridkin & Kenney, 2015); but the news media use masculine stereotypes to cover female candidates (Hayes & Lawless, 2016). Possible causes of a disjuncture between female candidate strategy and news media coverage include news norms and routines that pressure journalists to focus on conflict between candidates, and this may not always reflect the message of a candidate.

In sum, analyzing lower-level elections suggests few differences across candidate sex in the way stereotypes emerge in news coverage. High-profile elections for high-stakes offices such as the presidency may find evidence of feminine stereotypes in coverage. The dominantly masculine content of news coverage suggests that feminine qualities have a small role in the overwhelmingly masculine domain of politics. The next section considers how candidate strategy and the news media affect voter reliance on gender stereotypes in decision making.

Voter Reliance on Gender Stereotypes

Information disseminated to voters through campaigns and candidates can certainly affect the way voters use gender stereotypes to evaluate candidates. At a more basic level, a candidate’s sex can also affect how voters evaluate female and male candidates. Voters use candidate sex to form inferences about issue competencies and candidate ideology. Voters associate communal issues with female politicians such as education, health care, and social welfare policy (Alexander & Anderson, 1993; Schneider, 2014a). Conversely, voters associate agentic issues such as national security, military policy, and foreign affairs with male politicians (Holman, Merolla, & Zechmeister, 2016). These issue inferences reflect the stereotypical social roles held by women and men. Voters form these types of inferences about both Democratic and Republican women (Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2009, Bauer, 2018)—even though voters see the Republican Party as owning masculine issues. Similarly, male candidates have an advantage on issues that demand power and authority, which fits into the conventional role of men as fighters, protectors, or leaders (Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993b). Masculine issue ownership does not extend to Republican female candidates but extends to Republican male candidates (Bauer, 2018; Sanbonmatsu & Dolan, 2009).

An implication of these sex-based patterns of issue attributions is that voters rate female candidates poorly on stereotypically masculine issues and male candidates poorly on stereotypically feminine issues. The masculine issue deficit can harm female candidates because voters consider place defense and national security at the top of the political agenda (Holman, Merolla, & Zechmeister, 2011; Holman, Merolla, & Zechmeister, 2016; Lawless, 2004). Male candidates experience a competency deficit on issues that reflect stereotypically feminine strengths, but this deficit occurs most strongly for Republican male candidates and does not necessarily harm these candidates at the polls (Bauer, 2018).

Voters also use gender stereotypes to infer female candidates are more ideologically liberal compared to their male counterparts (Koch, 2000, 2002; McDermott, 1997, 1998). The perception of female candidates as more liberal holds for both Democratic and Republican female candidates. Stereotypes about women as focused on caring for others underlie this association because a liberal ideology supports an active, or caring, role for government. The association between being female and being liberal does not necessarily pose an obstacle for Democratic female candidates given that voters expect Democratic candidates to adhere to a liberal ideology. Perceiving Republican female candidates as more liberal than Republican male candidates, however, can make it more difficult for Republican women to win primary elections (Lawless & Pearson, 2008; Thomsen, 2014).

Gender stereotypes underlie the issue and ideological impressions voters form about female candidates, but it is not clear if these inferences directly affect vote choice decisions. The subsequent sections separately outline how and when feminine and masculine stereotypes affect the political choices voters make about candidates. A key factor affecting whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision making is the extent to which voters have information about candidates that conforms to feminine or masculine stereotypes.

Feminine Stereotypes in Voter Decision Making

Knowing that a candidate is female does not necessarily lead voters to see female candidates as weak, sensitive, or emotional (Brooks, 2013; Schneider & Bos, 2014), and feminine stereotypes may not automatically and directly affect voter decision making (Bauer, 2015b; Dolan, 2014). One reason voters do not automatically turn to feminine stereotypes is that partisanship carries more weight in voter decision making. Voters will support a political candidate based on shared partisanship regardless of whether or not they perceive that candidate to have qualities consistent with feminine or masculine stereotypes (Bauer, 2015b; Dolan, 2014).

Not all American voters readily identify with a political party (Klar & Krupnikov, 2016). Indeed, nearly 40% of voters in the United States identify as a political independent, though many of these Independents lean toward one political party over the other. True Independent voters, who do not lean toward one political party, are less motivated by shared partisanship in vote choice decisions and less likely to use partisan stereotypes to form impressions of female candidates. The result is that Independent voters see female candidates through the lens of feminine stereotypes and are less likely to vote for female candidates (Bauer, 2015c). The increased salience of feminine stereotypes reduces electoral support for female candidates among Independents because of the incongruence between feminine stereotypes and masculine perceptions of political leadership. Thus, it is likely that for a large segment of the electorate candidate sex will override partisan motivations in decision making.

Exposure to campaign communication that reinforces feminine stereotypes can lead voters to associate female candidates with these stereotypically feminine traits when they otherwise may not (Bauer, 2015b; Bos, 2011; Ditonto, Hamilton, & Redlawsk, 2014; Ditonto, 2017). Ditonto, Hamilton, and Redlawsk (2014) illustrate that voters seek out competency information about female candidates, and this behavior suggests that voters see female candidates as lacking the knowledge or experience necessary for holding political office. They also show that this tendency has changed very little from the 1990s. Highlighting feminine stereotypes poses risks for female candidates because this information can confirm the preexisting notion that female candidates lack leadership qualities.

Feminine stereotypes do not lead voters to form negative evaluations of male political candidates because of the high level of congruity between being male and being a leader (Bauer, 2017; Brooks, 2013). Emphasizing feminine stereotypes has an expansive effect on the impressions voters form of male candidates leading voters to see male candidates as having both feminine and masculine traits and issues (Bauer, 2017; Schneider, 2014a). Additionally, it is likely that voters will interpret the feminine traits used by a male candidate as aligning with partisan stereotypes rather than stereotypes about gender (Hayes, 2005). Voters will see a Republican male candidate who talks about compassion as trespassing on a trait owned by the Democratic Party and will see this candidate as having both compassion and strength.

There is evidence that feminine stereotypes do not always work to the detriment of female candidates. Highlighting feminine stereotypes can lead voters to see female candidates as bringing a fresh perspective to politics with a unique set of skills differentiating them from their male counterparts (Brown, Diekman, & Schneider, 2011). This positive effect can be especially beneficial for female candidates after a political scandal or crisis because voters will see women as more honest and ethical than male politicians (Barnes, Beaulieu, & Saxton, 2017). Moreover, female candidates benefit from emphasizing feminine stereotypes when women’s issues are at the top of the political agenda, as was the case in 1992 when a record number of women ran for and won political office (Dolan, 2004b; Williams, 1998). Stereotypic women’s issues may have a higher place on the electoral agenda in state and local elections where issues such as education and health care often top the issue agenda (Fox & Oxley, 2003; Holman, 2013; Sanbonmatsu, 2006). Feminine stereotypes also motivate the gender affinity effect where female voters are more likely to support female politicians based on the belief these politicians will represent the interests of women (Sanbonmatsu, 2002; Dolan, 2004a). In short, if the external campaign environment does not create a climate that leads voters to value feminine qualities in female candidates, then female candidates may not benefit from highlighting these qualities.

Masculine Stereotypes in Voter Decision Making

A consistent finding in the literature is that while voters do not automatically use feminine stereotypes to evaluate a female candidate, voters do not see female candidates as having masculine traits or having policy expertise on masculine issues (Leeper, 1991; Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993b; Sapiro, 1981; Schneider, 2014a). The incongruence between being female and being a political leader creates a dynamic where female candidates have to be more qualified than male candidates to be successful (Anzia & Berry, 2011; Huddy & Terkildsen, 1993b). Indeed, successful women in American elections and in other Western democracies tend to have stronger qualifications than successful male candidates (Black & Erickson, 2003; O’Brien, 2015; Pearson & McGhee, 2013). Female candidates can use masculine stereotypes to persuade voters they have the qualities needed to fill leadership roles (Schneider & Bos, 2014). Emphasizing masculine stereotypes can affect voter decision making about female and male candidates in two ways. First, masculine stereotypes can enhance the leadership qualifications of female and male candidates; second, masculine stereotypes can lead to a backlash against either female or male candidates.

Among co-partisan voters, emphasizing positive masculine qualities that are also consistent with leadership expectations can improve the perception that female candidates fit into leadership roles (Bauer, 2017). Voter evaluations also improve when female candidates stress masculine issues (Schneider, 2014a). Certain contexts, such as a national security crisis, may call for female candidates to emphasizing masculinity. Holman, Merolla, and Zechmeister (2017) found that voters respond positively when female candidates emphasize their political acumen in dealing with national security issues. Voters will respond positively to female candidates who highlight masculine traits and issues if these masculine qualities comport with the expectations voters have for political leaders.

Masculine stereotypes can disadvantage female candidates under two key conditions. First, out-party voters will use feminine stereotypes to punish female candidates who behave in ways consistent with masculine stereotypes (Bauer, 2017; Bauer, Yong Harbridge, & Krupnikov, 2017). For example, Krupnikov and Bauer (2014) found that out-party voters punish female candidates for starting negative campaign attacks against a male opponent in a campaign. Airing a negative campaign ad, while considered a regular part of campaigning, breaks with feminine stereotypes of women as passive and weak. Important to note is that out-party male candidates do not face nearly as steep a punishment compared to out-party female candidates. In-party voters, because partisan concerns motivate them, will be much more forgiving of masculine female candidates.

Second, female candidates will face a backlash if their masculine behaviors do not fit into the expectations voters have for political leaders. Female candidates who engage in masculine displays of behavior, such as getting angry with a reporter, can face a punishment for straying too far from feminine stereotypes, but this is a punishment male candidates face as well (Brooks, 2013). Displaying anger fits stereotypes of men as aggressive, but anger also breaks with the expectation that political leaders be diplomatic and composed. The fact that both female and male candidates face a punishment for showing anger suggests that the negative reactions from this break with the normative expectations for political leaders and not necessarily because the female candidate violated feminine stereotypic expectations.

Feminine and masculine stereotypes can affect how voters form impressions of candidate traits, issue competencies, and candidate ideology. The extent to which feminine and masculine stereotypes affect the electoral choices voters make at the polls is much more ambiguous. The literature suggests that voter reliance on gender stereotypes depends on how the news media and political candidates emphasize these qualities. If female candidates highlight feminine traits voters will then use feminine stereotypes to form negative assessments about the leadership abilities of female candidate. If female candidates avoid feminine traits then voters will as well. Voters will use masculine stereotypes positively if female candidates emphasize positive masculine qualities that map onto the traits voters desire in political leaders. Masculine stereotypes can instigate a backlash toward female candidates among out-partisan voters.

Evidence suggests that voters do not use feminine or masculine stereotypes to negatively evaluate male candidates; thus, male candidates face few risks when incorporating gender stereotypes into campaign strategies.

Future Avenues in Gender Stereotype Research

This article has considered the conflicting research on how candidates and the news media operationalize gender stereotypes and how voters respond to the use of gender stereotypes in campaign communication. Voters do not automatically rely on gender stereotypes to evaluate female candidates, but these constructs can affect decision making under a limited set of conditions. Current scholarship has only begun to identify all the conditions that can lead to reliance on gender stereotypes; as such, future research should continue to expand our knowledge on this point. This final section considers three ways scholars can deepen our understanding of gender stereotypes in political decision making. First, scholars should examine how gender stereotypes interact with other stereotypes about candidates. Second, scholars can investigate how stereotypical information beyond traits and issues affects voter evaluations. Third, scholars should explore how gender stereotypes affect candidate evaluations after the election ends.

A growing body of literature finds that the overlap between partisan and gender stereotypes disadvantages Republican women (Bauer, 2018; Dolan, 2014; Thomsen & Swers, 2017; Thomsen, 2015). The numerical presence of Republican women in the U.S. Congress, holding approximately 5% of seats in the House and the Senate, lends credence to this conclusion. It is not entirely clear whether voters exhibit bias toward Republican female contenders. Some studies find that Democrat and Independent voters will cross partisan lines to support a Republican woman (King & Matland, 2003). Republican women may struggle to secure support from within their partisan ranks due to a perceived lack of ideological fit (Lawless & Pearson, 2008; Thomsen, 2015). Further complicating the role of gender stereotypes in evaluations of Republican women are perceptions of candidate ideology. Stereotypes about women as soft and compassionate conflict with stereotypes about Republicans as tough and aggressive, but stereotypes about women comport with a conservative ideology that values family and supports the traditional social roles of women as homemakers and caregivers. How voters make sense of this intersection between gender, party, and ideology is not well understood.

Stereotypes about gender can interact with stereotypes about partisanship but also with stereotypes about a candidate’s race, religion, occupational background, sexual orientation, or social class. For instance, stereotypes about Latino individuals and gender stereotypes combine to provide Latina political candidates with an electoral advantage (Bejarano, 2013). Moreover, racial stereotypes and gender stereotypes can intersect to give black female candidates a strong advantage among black female voters (Philpot & Walton, 2007). Differences in the way the news media cover minority versus non-minority female candidates can affect how voters form impressions of candidates (Gershon, 2012). Female candidates have complex political identities, and considering how these identities affect the strategies employed by candidates and how voters respond to such strategies is a critical next step for future research.

Current scholarship identifies how stereotypic traits, issues, and behaviors affect the way voters form impressions of female candidates. Future research should identify how other types of information can affect stereotype reliance. For instance, information about a candidate’s status as a mother or a father can affect gender stereotype reliance (Deason, Greenlee, & Langer, 2015). Much of the information voters receive about candidates comes through visual communication channels such as television news, websites, and other forms of social media. However, few studies investigate how images affect stereotype reliance. Bauer and Carpinella (2017) found that voters see female candidates who include images of the military on their websites as less viable electoral contenders. Other research suggests that nonverbal displays that do not reflect strength can negatively affect female candidate evaluations (Carpinella & Jonhnson, 2013; Everitt, Best, & Gaudent, 2016; Hehman et al., 2014). Identifying how voters respond to other forms of stereotypic information, beyond traits and issues, will clarify the conditions that affect how voters use gender stereotypes.

Voters hold expectations that political candidates and leaders should possess qualities consistent with masculine stereotypes; however, not all masculine qualities fit with the expectations voters hold for political leaders. Identifying how gender stereotypes affect the perception of female candidates as leaders requires developing a better understanding of what the stereotypes are that voters hold about political leadership. Research shows that female candidates face a limited backlash, mainly among out-partisan voters, when they behave in ways consistent with masculine stereotypes (Bauer, 2017; Bauer, Yong Harbridge, & Krupnikov, 2017; Brooks, 2013; Holman, Merolla, & Zechmeister, 2017; Krupnikov & Bauer, 2014). However, strategies that break with both masculine stereotypes and leadership stereotypes could lead in-partisan voters to reject female candidates. Developing a better conceptualization of what constitutes a leadership quality versus just a masculine quality will allow scholars to better understand how voters respond to the campaign strategies of female candidates.

Scant research pays attention to the way gender stereotypes operate in state and local elections. Much of the recent research on gender stereotypes tends to focus on congressional elections or executive-level offices. Women’s under-representation is strikingly low at the state and local level. Female lawmakers hold an average of 25% of city council seats and only 20% of mayors of cities over 30,000 have a woman in office. A prevalent assumption in the literature is that feminine stereotypes will not hinder female candidates at the state and local level; in fact, stereotypes at these levels of office may be an advantage. Two factors motivate this assumption. First, as the level of office increases the need to demonstrate masculinity also increases (Conroy, 2015b; Rosenwasser & Dean, 1989). Second, state and local issues frequently reflect the stereotypical issue strengths of women (Holman, 2013; Windett, 2014). Huddy and Terkildsen (1993a), however, find that voters prefer female candidates with masculine traits and not feminine traits even at a local level of office.

Examining how the stereotypic expectations voters have for candidates at different levels of office, and the types of strategies female candidates can successfully employ is a fruitful area for future research.

Political institutions can shape the perceived utility of emphasizing gender stereotypes and can increase the opportunities for voters to use gender stereotypes in decision making.

Turning to research on how gender stereotypes operate in other democratic systems is a promising avenue for future research. Indeed, many studies investigate the role of gender stereotypes in other democratic systems and find that electoral and representative institutions can affect how voters use gender stereotypes, but voters do not erase gender stereotypes from their minds (see, e.g., Carlson, 2001; Matland, 1994; O’Brien & Rickne, 2016; O’Brien, 2015). Creating institutions that value feminine stereotypes as assets rather than deficits in female candidates can increase the political representation of women worldwide.

The gender stereotyping literature focuses on voter responses to female candidates during a political campaign. This focus makes sense given that elections call upon citizens to make choices about political candidates at the ballot. Voter evaluations of candidates often involve assessing how well a lawmaker performed in political office. It is not clear if voters use gender stereotypes in the same way to evaluate lawmakers compared to candidates. Two studies, Bauer, Yong Harbridge, and Krupnikov (2017) and Vraga (2017), address this question by investigating voter responses to female candidates who fail to compromise on legislation or defy their political parties in the legislature. Both studies find that out-party female lawmakers face the steepest punishment. This work provides a starting point for investigating how voters use gender stereotypes to evaluate the behaviors of female relative to male lawmakers.


Political campaigns are environments shaped by gendered expectations that favor masculine qualities over feminine qualities (Dittmar, 2015; Conroy, 2015b). Clinton’s use of feminine stereotypes through issues that disproportionately affect women such as pay equity as well as her “gender card” strategy may have led some voters to conclude that she lacked that “presidential look.” Conversely, Trump’s aggressive and combative campaign style reinforced masculine perceptions of the presidency. Female candidates can certainly try and overcome these masculine perceptual barriers by drawing on masculine traits and masculine issues in campaign messages, and these strategies can bolster electoral support among voters. Strategies that focus on feminine traits are less likely to resonate with voters when the candidate is a woman, but male candidates have greater flexibility to highlight either feminine or masculine stereotypes. These gendered dynamics mean that female candidates need to be much more cautious and strategic than male candidates when developing campaign strategies that avoid or highlight gender stereotypes.


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