Do voters hold women candidates to a different standard? Whether it's a heckler telling Hillary Clinton to "iron my shirt" during the 2008 presidential campaign, or the fact that Congress remains just 18.5 percent female, it's not hard to find signs of bias in American politics. But in her new book, When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates & Gender Stereotypes in American Elections (Oxford University Press, 2014), political scientist Kathleen Dolan challenges the conventional wisdom. Although women run for office in far lower numbers than men, she points out, they win at the same rate. Armed with the results of two surveys she conducted during the 2010 midterms, Dolan argues that gender figures far less in voters' decision-making than her fellow scholars, and the political media, assume.
Dolan points out a hole in the research that preceded hers. While a wealth of studies have found that voters see women according to stereotypes, most relied on hypothetical matchups, thought experiments about candidates who are identical in every way but gender. In real races, of course, gender is one of many factors. "We know that voters hold political gender stereotypes, and we know that women win elections," Dolan writes. "What we know much less about is what happens between these two realities."
The first of Dolan's surveys gauged voters' level of stereotypical thinking. Thirty-one percent of respondents agreed with the statement that men are emotionally better-suited to politics than women, corroborating earlier studies. Two months later, Dolan went a step further, asking the same voters to evaluate women candidates running for the House, the Senate, and the governorship in their states—allowing her to track whether the people who displayed hidebound thinking about women in the first round actually applied it when casting their votes.
Her answer: not often, and not in ways that mattered much. Faced with flesh-and-blood candidates, voters' biases largely faded into the background. Instead, voters were swayed by things like incumbency, campaign spending—and, above all, partisanship. Dolan's single clearest finding is that party affiliation trumps all. Not only do voters give it the most weight, but their beliefs about gender also divide cleanly along partisan lines. Liberals tend to see women as superior policymakers when it comes to education and abortion, while conservatives rate men more highly in areas like national security and the economy. The split is exemplified by Dolan's finding that the desire to see more women elected to office correlates with voting for a Democratic woman, but negatively correlates with supporting a Republican woman. Meanwhile, people who believe there should be fewer women in office are more likely to choose a Republican woman over a Democratic man. In other words, Democrats are more likely to support women candidates in the abstract, and Republicans less so, but neither group holds the conviction dearly enough to vote across party lines.
Dolan argues convincingly that journalists and political scientists need to be more careful about singling out gender in races where other factors seem to have played a larger role. She points to a piece in The New York Times that speculated about New York mayoral candidate Christine Quinn's gender vis-à-vis her loss, in which the authors were obliged to acknowledge Quinn's unpopular ties to the "plutocratic incumbent"—and the lack of a gender gap in the exit polls.
Still, Dolan's work to disentangle questions about gender from our understanding of why women candidates win or lose only goes so far. What would her survey model reveal, for example, if applied to primary races (such as Quinn's), where the question of party affiliation disappears? And, as she notes, gender's effect on voters isn't the only way it can be a barrier. Political elites are less likely to recruit women to run, and women tend to be harsher judges than men of their own readiness to enter a race. Gender may not be everything, but, as the small number of women in Congress attests, it still matters.
This article appears in the August 2, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Voters Are Less Sexist Than You Think.