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The Prevalence of Political Gender Stereotypes

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In most modern democracies, equality between men and women has become the dominant ideal within the mainstream political discourse. Men and women should naturally have the same rights, and no one should be excluded from political life. Nevertheless, there are substantial differences both between countries and between different political spheres as to how much and what kind of equality exists. There are several reasons why some countries or some policy areas are more gender equal then others, and everything from regime and institutional features to elements of culture have been used to explain why politics is generally still dominated by male politicians.

The question is, does the gender of politician’s affects the way citizen evaluate various aspects of the qualities of a political speech and their support for political parties? Does stereotyping influence how the electorate views the communication skills of the candidates? I hypothesize that voters will favor candidates of their own gender, such that men evaluate the male candidate as better, whereas women rank the female candidate higher than the male candidate. Characteristic traits can be linked to political behavior or to political beliefs. This is expected to lead to two varieties of political gender stereotypes, those based on women’s issue competencies and those based on their ideological positions.

Until the early 1980s, the average female voter was considered more religious and conservative than her male counterpart. The parties on the left and especially the far left were more popular among male than female voters. Female politicians were scarce and often considered curiosities or simply ignored. The traditional voting pattern was reversed in several countries in the early 80s, which led to a renewed interest in what became known as the “gender gap”: the increased propensity of women to vote for parties on the left (cf. Mueller (ed.) 1988, Listhaug, Huseby & Matland 1995). In the 80s, men were typically described as more conservative, whereas women were more liberal or oriented towards the political left. Eventually, researchers also focused on the careers of the growing number of female politicians. One line of research has pointed to how traditional views on gender roles among voters might work against female candidates by influencing how voters perceive candidate traits, beliefs and issue. Experimental studies have shown that female candidates were affiliated with certain “female themes”, whereas men were considered more knowledgeable on “male issues” – when the assessments were based on identical political messages (Sapiro 1982, Matland 1994). Other studies demonstrated how female candidates were viewed more positively if the political campaign evolved around typical “female issues” (Kahn 1996), and how male and female candidates developed different campaign strategies. While men tended to concentrate on economic issues, women seemed much more likely to discuss social issues (Kahn 1993). Traditional gender stereotypes were believed to “fill in the blanks” whenever voters lacked information, either because no information was provided or because the information was ignored or forgotten. When asked, respondents made up their minds on the basis of a mixture of relevant knowledge and stereotypes. The less knowledgeable respondents were, the more likely it was that traditional stereotypes would come into play. Others have how- ever found the exact opposite pattern. Koch (2002) finds that those with the highest levels of knowledge are most likely to use stereotypes.

That candidates of different gender are perceived to have different competence areas is not necessarily negative for the popularity of the candidates and their parties. Women might stand for different policies and thus bring new issues into politics, consequently attracting new or less mobilized groups of voters. The idea is that female politicians open new dimensions of party competition by emphasizing new issues. We might label this the gender-issue approach. Female politicians may also introduce new dimensions of personal competence into politics. Their “newness” does not mean that these personal traits are insignificant. If gender stereotypes do influence voters’ perceptions of issue salience and issue positions, this might in turn influence other significant perceptions as well, such as the candidate’s ability to communicate, bring compassion into politics, and her capacity to persuade important sections of the electorate, etc. If female politicians are attributed different personal skills, this might also have an impact on their popularity and the popularity of the parties they represent. These questions have become more important as voters seem to be more volatile and change party preference from one election to the next. Moreover, an increasing share of voters now decides which party they will vote for during the election campaign. Hence, how the party and their candidates are able to communicate and mobilize the electorate has become increasingly important.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we all use stereotypes as information shortcuts in everyday life. Because we cannot have full information about everything, we often rely on conventional and oversimplified conceptions. Hence, voters may use candidate gen- der as an “information shortcut” to estimate the features of a politician, as they might use other demographic characteristics or partisanship to evaluate political candidates (Popkin 1991). But whereas partisanship is often a relevant characteristic to judge political candidates by, gender stereotypes might be misleading and have a negative impact on the process of getting more women involved in politics. In a society with a traditional division of labor, gender stereotypes tend to be strong, that is, they are shared by both men and women and have a profound effect on attitudes and behavior. Assessments of role performance will be based on a different set of expectations for male and female politicians. Any politician trying to cross the line between the realm of male and female politicians will stand out as misplaced and risk becoming a laughing stock among both women and men. In a country in which females have served as prime minister, minister of defense, minister of transportation, minister of the interior, just to mention a few positions, traditional views on the role of female politicians have been profoundly challenged. Today it seems more relevant to ask whether women and men judge the same performance by a female and male politician by the same standards.

To analyze gender stereotypes, scholars commonly use a between-subjects experimental design. Participants in the experiment would be normally asked to evaluate a single candidate based on biographical information or a short speech, and the stimuli are the same across all subjects, except that one candidate is male and the other is female. These studies have demonstrated that people do evaluate performance differently and solely on the basis of the candidate’s gender. Some issues, such as crime, defense and foreign policy issues, are typically perceived to be handled well by men, whereas women are more able to deal with social and feminist issues. These stereotypes may come from stereotypes about men and women in general or knowledge of the behavior of men and women in politics. Scholars, however, have not reached a consensus on whether gender stereotypes affect voting behavior, although a few studies suggest that gender stereotypes do indirectly influence vote choice (Kahn 1996, McDermott 1997, Dolan 1998, Sanbonmatsu 2002). Female representatives are often perceived to be more liberal than they actually are. As gender schema theory suggests, voters also tend to have preferences for one gender over the other – based on stereotypes related to issue competence and personal traits. Matland suggested that the gender bias may not necessarily harm the chances of female candidates, as it merely reflects that women are perceived to have different areas of expertise, not that these areas are less important. “The crucial assumption is that while voters perceive differences in competence, these do not disadvantage women, because women’s areas of expertise are valued as highly as men’s areas of expertise” (Matland 1994, 288).

In an attempt to show how gender stereotypes may affect the perceived communication skills of political candidates, there would be conducted a set of experiments connected to the largest parties prior to the 2001 Norwegian national election. In this study, wished to isolate the effect of the gender of the candidate who presents the political message as well as to hold all other factors (including party) constant. We wished to include the five largest parties in Norwegian politics, as well as to choose a speech that was as identical as possible for the various parties. In other words, it was important that the candidate talk about issues that were of general importance to the party, as well as that the length of the speech be as similar as possible. Therefore, it was chosen to use recordings from the “Address Debate” held at the opening of the Norwegian parliament in the fall of 2000. The length of the recordings varied from 12 to 17 minutes.

The manuscripts from the 5 speeches were given to an actor and an actress who were told to perform the speeches in the same manner as the leaders had performed them. Only a few minor changes in the manuscript were made, and just to eliminate the leaders’ direct references to personal actions or personal quotes. After having studied the recordings of the party leaders to imitate their form, the actor and actress presented the same speech verbatim. The actor and actress were digitally edited onto the Storting podium, resulting in high picture quality. The camera angle was the same as for the original Norwegian Broadcasting Company’s (NRK) recordings of the leaders. The cuts to the audience, etc., in the hall were also edited in, so that the final videotapes of the simulated “backbenchers” were identical to those of the party leaders. Reverberation was also added to the recordings of the “backbenchers”, and the NRK logo and hypertext were identical for the original recordings and the constructed ones. Constructed names for the backbenchers from Statistics Norway’s list over most used names. None of the 409 subjects who saw the recordings of the actor or actress ex- pressed any doubts about the authenticity of the videotape. It is the research group’s firm belief that the actor’s and actress’s presentations of the message are not significantly different from those of the leaders with regard to important factors such as involvement, voice production, body language, speed, etc. The rather dreary original speeches did not give the actors much room for lively interpretation.

The subjects in the experiment consisted of first-time voters recruited through the comprehensive schools in 4 different municipalities. We visited all final year classes in these municipalities, and although this is not a representative sample, the group gives a good insight into first-time voters within the geographical area, simply because a majority of the population is included. It was primarily practical concerns that led us to use a sample of first-time voters. As always when dealing with non-representative samples, one should reflect over whether or not this influences the analytical results. It is a well-known fact that first-time voters are less politically active, have less political experience and are less knowledgeable about politics compared to the population in general. Therefore, first-time voters are also considered to be more easily influenced by new information, as they lack the objections older voters have often acquired. This suggests that first-time voters would be particularly sensitive to any stimuli and that we would be able to achieve stronger effects in our sample, if these effects do indeed exist. However, it is important to bear in mind that our experiments aim at capturing the potential effects of already established opinions. There is reason to believe that many first-time voters not only lack firm opinions on central political issues, but that they also lack established opinions about party politics in general. A total of 53 percent of the subjects in the experiments said that they had little or no interest in politics.

The experiments would be conducted during one school lesson (45 minutes). Students will be told that they could choose not to participate, but that they were not allowed to leave the classroom. Only a very small number of students, all with a non-Norwegian background, exchange students, etc., chose not to participate in the experiment. The subjects would then answer a short questionnaire before watching the taped speech. After exposure, the subjects would be given a new questionnaire.


Dolan, Kathleen (1998) ‘Voting for Woman in ‘The Year of the Woman”, American Journal of Political Science 42: 272-293.

Kahn, Kim Fridkin (1996) The Political Consequences of Being a Woman: How Stereotypes Influence the Conduct and Consequences of Political Campaigns. New York: Columbia University Press

Koch, Jeffrey W. (2002) ‘Gender Stereotypes and Citizens’ Impressions of House Candidates’ Ideological Orientation’, American Journal of Political Science 46: 453-462.

Mueller, Carol M. (1988) (ed.) The Politics of the Gender Gap. The Social Construction of Political Influence. Sage, Newbury Park.

Popkin, Samuel L. (1991) The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sanbonmatsu, Kira (2002) ‘Gender Stereotypes and Vote Choice’, American Journal of Political Science 46: 20-34.

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