By Nikki Marrone ’20
The current United States Congress has the highest percentage of female representatives in the history of the nation with a resounding 23.7%. This percentage may appear low to some, especially in the context of the 2020 presidential election where there is a noticeable spike in female candidates pursuing the presidency within the Democratic party. Why are there so little women in Congress? Is it because male voters are less likely to vote for female candidates? Are qualified female candidates evaluated differently than qualified male candidates? The Bucknell Institute for Public Policy sought to assess how different genders evaluate male and female candidates’ qualifications in running for the United States Congress, to see if a gender bias exists as a barrier to increased female representation in the United States Congress.
We designed the experiment with three pairs of hypothetical individuals: Chris & Christina Stevens, Mark & Marian Rodriguez, and Jack & Janice Carlson. Each pair had the same biography which delineated their qualifications and respondents were randomly assigned one candidate per pair.
So, for example, one randomly-selected group of respondents received the description:
Jack Carlson is a single man, 40, with no aspirations to have children or get married. He has a four year degree from Vanderbilt and combined 10 years of experience working as both a federal prosecutor and for the lieutenant governor of his home state.
While a second group of respondents received the description:
Janice Carlson is a single woman, 40, with no aspirations to have children or get married. She has a four year degree from Vanderbilt and combined 10 years of experience working as both a federal prosecutor and for the lieutenant governor of her home state.
In a nationally representative survey conducted by YouGov.com, we then asked individuals if how qualified they would consider these individuals to run for a position in the House of Representatives. The respondents could answer on a scale from “very qualified” to “not at all qualified.” For the purposes of this post, the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy focused on those respondents who answered that the candidate was “very qualified” or “not at all qualified.”
We found that 25% of men and 26% of women found Chris Stevens to be “very qualified” for the United States Congress. In juxtaposition, 7% of men and 5% of women found Chris Stevens to be “not at all qualified” for the United States Congress. As for those respondents who received Christina Stevens, 27% of men and 28% of women perceived Christina Stevens to be “very qualified” for the United States Congress. Additionally, 11% of men and 6% of women found Christina Stevens to be “not at all qualified” for the United States Congress.
The results show – across each vignette – that men and women do not evaluate male and female candidates differently. The similar levels of support and opposition would indicate that at least when it comes to qualifications, voters do not perceive male and female candidates differently. This finding consistent with much other research on the topic: once women make the decision to run for office, voters tend to evaluate them as equally qualified as men, and vote for them at the same or higher rates. The inequality in representation stems from other factors–such as the decision to run for office at all–rather than any penalty voters place on female candidates.