Female political candidates have significant disadvantages compared to their male opponents. Many voters instinctually associate the notion of leadership with men, and, probably as a result, they approach women candidates warily, often finding reasons to oppose them.
But what happens when, in spite of these hurdles, a woman ascends to her nation's highest office? New research analyzing the tenure of female presidents around the world finds the sexism does not stop after a national victory.
Even after reaching the top, "female political leaders still encounter hurdles in mass opinion that male politicians do not," writes a research team led by political scientist Ryan Carlin of Georgia State University. "Our results demonstrate that female presidents are held to higher standards, and punished more severely for policy failures, than their male counterparts."
Carlin and his colleagues analyzed data from 18 Latin American democracies, plus South Korea and the Philippines, from 1985 to 2015. They tracked the popularity of each president elected during that three-decade period—a group that includes 10 women—and noted how it was affected by a variety of factors, including terrorist attacks, crime rates, economic growth, and the public perception of political corruption.
"While male presidents enjoy significantly greater approval during the first three months of their presidencies in comparison to the rest of their tenure, female leaders have, at best, a very limited and short-lived honeymoon," they report in the British Journal of Political Science.
So the distrust starts very early, and then gets compounded with negative events. For example: "Mounting corruption perceptions have essentially no effect on male presidents' approval ratings, but significantly, and substantially, damage public support for female presidents," the researchers write.
Similarly, "an upturn in terrorist attacks neither boosts nor tanks male leaders' approval, probably due to the countervailing effects of 'rally-round-the-flag,'" they report. "But an escalation in terror attacks erodes female leaders' public standing."
The study does offer one piece of good news for Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and the other female candidates running for president in 2020: The researchers found "no substantial evidence that the public judges female and male presidents differently when it comes to economic conditions." Indeed, the economy appears to be "the one area in which the public appears to evaluate male and female presidents similarly."
That arena aside, there clearly remains a potent stereotype that female leaders somehow aren't tough enough to protect the nation from internal or external threats. When such challenges arise, many voters sour quickly on a woman president.
"Female leaders," the researchers conclude, "have the deck stacked against them."