On the Bias – May 22, 2015


The mission of Presidential Gender Watch 2016 is to track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in election 2016. Those gender dynamics include, but are not limited to, evidence of gender bias in perceptions, media coverage, or candidate behavior. As we explain in our FAQs, we plan to examine the presence, claims and impact of sexism, recognizing variance in how it is defined, measured, and/or applied to or by candidates, voters, or media. We will rely upon scholarship on gender bias to provide a thoughtful framework for analysis, recognizing that there are no universal rules for what is or is not sexist. As part of this task, we will post a bi-weekly On the Bias to identify potential examples of bias and place them within the context of research, precedence, and comparative treatment of male and female candidates. In this first installment, we will identify cases of potential gender bias over the past month’s presidential election coverage.

We encourage you to contribute your thoughts, interpretations, and analyses of these cases – or submit your own cases – in our comments section or via social media using the hashtag #genderwatch2016.

Style Over Substance

waveIn his editorial condemning Carly Fiorina’s candidacy, Guardian contributor Jeb Lund begins by characterizing Fiorina’s style. He writes, “One is tempted to focus on her peculiarly peevish demeanor, a Grinchy soft-talking that sounds, even at the start of speeches, like she’s already had. it. up. to. here.” While Lund proceeds to focus more on her campaign strategy and failed record at Hewlett Packard, this emphasis on her demeanor and vocal style is reminiscent of similar coverage of fellow female politicians, including her Democratic counterpart – Hillary Clinton, as shrill, whiny, or unnecessarily angry or nagging (see this piece from The New Republic on the particular scrutiny of women politicians’, including Clinton’s, voices). These characterizations play into perceptions that female candidates violate gender expectations of femininity and niceness in their campaigns for the most masculinized political office in the U.S. One need only look to the recent re-issuing of the Hillary Nutcracker to see the most explicit evocations of these violations as both inappropriate and emasculating.

Moreover, these descriptions detract from substantive critiques of candidate records and policy positions. While men are not immune from similar characterizations (see these references to a “peevish” President George W. Bush, candidate Mitt Romney, and President Obama), the effects may vary due to the extent to which niceness is expected – and demanded – of women candidates in contrast to men.

Credentials for Office

Multiple columnists claim that Carly Fiorina would not be taken seriously as a presidential contender were it not for her gender. In The Hill, Brent Budowsky explains, “Looks to me like Fiorina is the designated hatchet woman to attack Hillary Clinton, and if she were a male, the GOP would have to find another woman to play this role, and Fiorina would not be considered by any serious person to be commander in chief.” In The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus directly claims, “Fiorina, as long-shot as her candidacy is, would not be taken even semi-seriously were it not for her gender.” Marcus goes on to explain that Fiorina’s candidacy “offends” her as a woman and defends her position against claims of sexism: “It’s not sexist to criticize Fiorina for being unqualified. What would be sexist is to hold her to a lower standard than a man with similarly paltry credentials.”

Slide1Marcus makes a credible point that different standards for men or women candidates – whether they work to women’s advantage or disadvantage – are problematic. However, research shows that women candidates are often held to higher, not lower, standards when running for political office. In my interviews with candidates and practitioners involved in statewide races, for example, they frequently reference the scrutiny of female candidates’ personal and professional lives and experience. One gubernatorial candidate characterized the contrast, “People will vote for men because of the expectation of their potential. People vote for women based on their past performance.” The continued coverage of Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett Packard as a failure of leadership raises questions about whether male candidates with similar business records have been or will be covered in the same light.

Finally, returning to the columnists’ claims of candidate credibility, is Fiorina’s gender the only reason she is being taken seriously at all? Marcus offers a comparison of Fiorina to Republican candidate Ben Carson, someone she deems similarly un-serious. In a quick evaluation of news coverage of both candidates to date, Carson receives 135 hits in three top newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) from May 4, 2015 (when both he and Fiorina announced) to May 20, 2015; in the same period, Fiorina received 160 hits, demonstrating no significant advantage to Fiorina. Moreover, of those 160 hits, only 14 explicitly refer to Fiorina’s gender, raising some doubts that these columnists’ claims are true, at least in the degree to which media is taking Fiorina’s candidacy seriously due to gender alone. We will continue to track this narrative for Fiorina and her male and female counterparts throughout this cycle.

“Vagina Voters”

Some columnists and pundits have also criticized what they view as gender essentialism in the support of women candidates on the basis of gender identity. In the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby argues that “gender is no credential for the White House,” claiming that “sex organs” are irrelevant to the job of U.S. president. We responded to Jacoby’s piece with a letter to the editor, highlighting that women’s “distinctive experiences contribute to their approaches to governing,” as we know from extensive research on women’s representation and impact. A post on reason.com is particularly critical of “vagina voting,” calling out female columnists and commentators who have pledged their support for Hillary Clinton on the basis of shared gender identity. This post simplifies the arguments that many of these women have made, ignoring the fact that even Kate Harding’s piece (titled “I Am Voting with my Vagina”) moves from biologically-shared traits to shared experiences of sexism to justify why she might be better represented by a woman in the Oval Office. She writes,

There has never been a president who knows what it’s like to menstruate, be pregnant, or give birth. There has never been a president who knows what it’s like to be the target of subtle and categorically unsubtle sexism. There has never been a president who was criticized widely for his political ambition, or forced into a bake-off to prove he’s not too career-oriented to cook for his family. … There has never been a president who was presumed to be mentally and emotionally unstable because of naturally occurring hormones. Until 2009, there had never been a president who had to work twice as hard to be seen as half as competent, and it’s been a welcome change.

The reality is that few – if any – voters vote simply on the basis of gender identity. Research consistently counters claims that women vote for women, instead showing that women’s votes – like men’s – are motivated most by party identity. As Kathleen Dolan (2008) concludes, “Certainly women support female candidates, but the evidence suggests that this support can be shaped by party loyalties as much as any gender loyalty. Women in the public evaluate female candidates in the same way that they evaluate all candidates, through the lens of personal and political considerations that take many forms.” Those personal and political considerations may include the perception that women candidates and officeholders might particularly representative of women’s interests, a finding also supported by research and complicating claims that gender is neither a cue or credential for voters to consider in candidate evaluation.

Viability and the Vice Presidency

carly-fiorina6Carly Fiorina’s claims of gender bias in two recent interviews were challenged by both interviewers. In an interview on May 4th, Kate Couric cited Fiorina’s poor polling and asked whether she was running with the hope of being tapped as a vice presidential candidate. Fiorina responded, “Oh, Katie. Would you ask a male candidate that?,” to which Couric responded, “Yes, I would ask a male candidate that! I think a male candidate that is polling at one percent, I would ask that question!” Fiorina was asked, and responded similarly to, Sarah Lane’s question the next day at TechCrunch Disrupt. Lane asked, “If you don’t win, are you interested in serving as vice president?” Fiorina responded, “Would you ever ask a man running for president that question?” And Lane, like Couric, responded that she would absolutely ask a man polling similarly to Fiorina the same question (to which Fiorina replied, “well, since you haven’t interviewed any male candidates, I’ll have to take your word for it.”).

These cases reflect the both the dangers of casting wide nets when it comes to claims of sexism, as well as the utility of using a standard of evaluating bias by whether or not similarly-situated men would face the same treatment. While it is very early in the 2016 cycle, Fiorina is not alone in facing claims that she may be running for number two spot (see coverage of Rubio, Walker, and Paul over the past year), and Couric and Lane’s defenses seem consistent with questions posed to presidential candidates in the past (John Edwards was asked this question at nearly every campaign stop, according to the New York Times). All that said, it seems more than fair for candidates – male and female – to push back when reporters question their viability. Fiorina might take some notes from Shirley Chisholm on how it’s done.