If She Were A Man: The Role of Gender in Perceptions of Candidate Qualifications

The following is a guest post by Holly Grosholz, the recipient of the class of 2017 Robin Roberts Senior Award in Public Policy describing her honors thesis research.

by Holly Grosholz ’17

In November, many believed the United States was on the verge of electing our first female President. Already behind many other developed countries in terms of gender representation, the election of a female Presidential candidate felt like the catalyst we needed to break the infamous “glass ceiling” that exists in American politics. Following Hillary Clinton’s loss, I heard countless reasons for the outcome of the election. Some cited racial and social class tensions, others the isolation of rural America. Overwhelmingly, I heard cries of gender inequality, unfair treatment, and the notion that if Hillary Clinton were a man, she would have won.

I’ve always been fascinated by female candidates. Only representing about twenty percent of our national electorate, female representatives are often seen as trailblazers, bringing new issues to the forefront of public policy and continuously gaining more leadership positions within Congressional committees. This confidence to rise above political “barriers” is was influenced me to intern for female representatives during my time at Bucknell. First, for Syracuse Mayor, Stephanie Miner, then through the Capitol Hill Internship Program for US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and finally on a local Congressional campaign. Before starting my research, I was convinced that women faced additional barriers when running for office, were held to unfair standards-both of beauty and capability- and did not receive as much support as male candidates. These hurdles were the cause for such low levels of female representation.

Once actually starting my research, however, I was surprised by the results. While women may have faced a ‘novelty’ factor when running for office a few decades ago, gender was not a significant consideration to voters. In fact, as we become increasingly polarized as a country, partisan, not gender identity is what will continue to be the most influential indicator and heuristic for voters. I soon discovered that there weren’t fewer women in office merely because of gender discrimination, but because women lack the confidence that they will succeed if they run. Without the belief that you are qualified, and that others will view you as such, you are much less likely to actually consider entering a race. A number of studies showed that when evaluating candidate qualifications in an electoral context, the more qualified candidate, regardless of gender, was always chosen.

In conducting my own research with Professor Chris Ellis, I decided to see if these equal evaluations still held true during the candidate emergence stage, when individuals are putting out “feelers” to see if they have a chance of electoral success. I found that gender, even at an earlier stage in the process, is an insignificant consideration to voters. When women run for office, they tend to win at the same rates as men. Therefore, the only way to get more women in office is to encourage more women to run. We must focus on improving our own self-efficacy as well as of other women in our communities. Once women can overcome this confidence gap and know that others believe they are qualified and capable candidates, we will hopefully have more women running, getting elected, and serving as our representatives.

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