Updated: May 10
Gender bias affects women not just in the workplace but during campaign trails, and makes it harder for us to get elected, hired, and promoted. More importantly, when it comes to elections, gender biases discourage more women from participating.
This may explain why despite making up 50% of the U.S. population we only account for less than 30% of elected positions.
Leading-up to the 2020 election, Lean In put together a report on how women are held to different standards than men and judged more harshly. The report touts how women not only have to work harder to prove we are qualified, we also have to worry about not coming across as self-promoting to avoid the risk of being disliked. This matters a lot on the campaign trail because women candidates have to be seen as both qualified and likeable, while men just have to be seen as qualified — likeability is a bonus.
We dug into the report and the seven biases women face while running for office:
1. Too Successful
Since the beginning of time, success, ambition and likeability have been seen as positive traits in men, but when the same traits are associated with women they instinctively become negative. As a result, people admire successful men and question successful women.
2. Too Ambitious
For just as long, society has assimilated qualities like strength, courage, and decisiveness as masculine. In contrast, traits like caring, nurturing and collaborative are seen as feminine and not as strongly correlated with leadership. As such, one of the biggest stereotypes is that men are naturally better leaders. These same stereotypical expectations assume women should be selfless and giving, so when women show drive and ambition we face criticism, our motives are questioned and we get labeled power-hungry. Men on the other hand don’t get penalized for being ambitious, in fact, they are expected to be and are seen as strong and confident.
4. Too Emotional
Men by default are categorized as measured and rational, even if they are not. While women are not allowed to show any kind of emotion because we risk being seen as too emotional. Therefore if a woman has an opinion and expresses it with conviction, she automatically becomes emotional and erratic. Men rarely get the same criticism.
5. Too Self-promotional
If that wasn’t bad enough, the report also highlights how society often overestimates men’s ability to perform while underestimating women’s actual performance. Since women often get less credit for accomplishments we work harder to prove we are qualified. Instead of touting accomplishments, we keep them to ourselves because we risk being seen as self-promoting. Once again, men don’t have to worry about this. They are expected to promote their accomplishments and background. This puts women candidates in an impossible spot. If they talk about their background and accomplishments, they’ll be labeled as self absorbed and if they don’t they’ll be overlooked.
6. Too Pretty, Ugly, Skinny, Fat, Loud, Not Loud Enough. Smile, Don’t Smile. Wrong Lipstick.
Women have to deal with their appearance, hair, clothes, face, body, even the type of makeup we wear or don’t. Men, not so much. This immediately puts them at an advantage. Even comments that are meant to be flattering focus on the wrong thing and take away attention from what truly matters in a candidate, proven track record, experience and ideas.
7. Too Much…
Women of color and members of the LGTBQ community face even more biases and compounded discrimination due to their race, sexual orientation, and other aspects of their identity. Data shows that compared to white women, women of color have a harder time getting party support, accessing built-in networks and raising money.
Then there is the “mothership” of gender bias, being a mother. When women become mothers, we often fall into the societal trap of picking family over career and we start blaming ourselves for not being able to manage both work and family. The cultural expectation for mothers running for office is that they should be at home taking care of the family. If women candidates stray away from gender norms, they are often questioned because society generally prefers women who are married with children over women who are not.
On top of all these biases, women often have to work harder to get coverage, never-mind positive coverage. Just like everyone else, the media is not immune to bias traps and coverage often reflects that. This is a serious problem considering the impact the media has on elections and voters’ perceptions of candidates.
So what do we do?
The first step is to acknowledge our own biases. We all have unconscious biases. Our brain is trained to make decisions by comparing our current situation with previous experiences and then draws conclusions out of that. We need to question our snap judgements, biases and do our part to counter them. We also need to make sure we are not imposing our own bias on someone else and we must encourage our family and friends to do the same.
We need to hold ourselves and other people accountable because, at the end of the day, elections should be about electing the best person for the job and we can’t allow gender bias to get in the way.