Economic Instability Dampens Support for Female Political Candidates

New research identifies yet another prejudice faced by women running for office.
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New research identifies yet another prejudice faced by women running for office.

A record number of women are running for office this year, and while many may be helped by #MeToo momentum, they also face unique challenges. Unlike their male counterparts, female candidates get punished by voters for everything from straying from party orthodoxy to appearing even slightly gender ambiguous.

New research identifies yet another obstacle on their road to elected office. It finds economic instability prompts some voters—by which we mean men—to favor male candidates.

"During times of economic instability, male voters appear to revert to a more traditional perspective that devalue women leaders because they are seen as less equipped to handle stereotypically masculine policy domains," write Ryan Lei of New York University and Galen Bodenhausen of Northwestern University.

Their findings provide a nuanced answer to the question of whether Hillary Clinton's unexpected loss in 2016 was driven by sexism or economic anxiety. It turns out the two worked in tandem, as the fear of a bleak economic future dampened male support for the first serious female presidential candidate.

In the journal Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, the researchers describe two studies that support this idea. The first featured 183 American adults recruited online. They began by reading a news article, purportedly from Bloomberg Businessweek, about the American and world economy. Half were informed we were "entering into a period of sustained stability," while the other half read that a period of instability was on the horizon.

"Next, participants completed an ostensibly unrelated task described as a study of voters' reactions to political advertisements," the researchers write. They were randomly assigned to view an ad for a candidate for the United States Senate—either a white man or a white women. (The candidates were matched for age, attractiveness, and competence.)

After viewing the ad, participants rated the candidate on such attributes as credibility and "leadership potential," and they indicated how likely they were to vote for him or her.

"Evaluations of male candidates did not differ by whether the economy had been described as stable or unstable," the researchers report. "Evaluations of female candidates, however, were significantly more positive when the economy had been depicted as stable. A similar pattern was observed when looking at the candidate's perceived ability to win an election."

A second, similarly structured study featuring 352 participants replicated those results, and found they were driven by men. When prompted to think of the economy as unstable, "male—but not female—participants evaluated the female candidate as less able to handle masculine policy domains, and consequently evaluated her less favorably," they report.

"In general, when the economy seems stable, men think about political leadership in a less gendered way, and are willing to support female candidates," the researchers conclude. "However, when they are prompted to think about economic instability, they view political candidates through a more gendered lens, characterizing women as less able and less-successful politicians."

Interestingly, party affiliation did not moderate these results, which suggests gender stereotypes are not limited to Republicans. While this is discouraging news for female candidates and their supporters, Lei and Bodenhausen also came up with another finding that will be more to their liking.

They note that, among participants in the study, "women evaluated the female candidate more positively than the male candidate, and perceived her more capable of winning elections," regardless of how they had been prompted to think about the economy.

That suggests there's a clear way candidates can counter male stereotyping: Convince more women to cast ballots.