Women are underrepresented in politics because they are often hesitant to participate, not because the media is implicitly biased against female candidates, according to Prof. Jennifer Lawless, government, American University.
At a lecture Monday, Lawless assessed the role of sexism in the U.S. presidential and congressional races, sharing anecdotes about her own 17 month-long campaign for Rhode Island Congress.
“No matter where you look, most of the faces in U.S. politics are those of men,” she said.
She explained that this underrepresentation stems from situational and structural barriers facing women, in tandem with a gender gap in political ambition. Women have not historically participated in politically involved fields, such as law, business and political activism, and are therefore significantly less likely to run for office, she said.
“Women haven’t traditionally worked in the professions that lead to these positions,” Lawless said. “Their numbers are getting better in those professions though, so the conventional wisdom is that over time they’ll wind up serving in positions of political power as well; we just have to be patient.”
Lawless also sought to disprove beliefs that the media only portrays women in a sexist manner, especially when they are campaigning in local, rather than national races.
“It seems to us that it might be a little bit premature to assume that only women are getting superficial coverage,” she said. “It seems that over time, men have gotten to the point that they, too, have received commentary on their appearance.”
Both men and women in politics are under constant scrutiny for their appearances — as demonstrated in the media frenzy over Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) camo shoes and Donald Trump’s hair — according to Lawless.
“A lot of the attention [Ernst received] had nothing to do with the content of [her] speech, it really had to do with the heels,” she said. “But the more we thought about it, the more we thought about men enduring a similar type of coverage.”
Lawless also discussed her book, Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, which analyzes the success of women running for office on the congressional level. To gather information for the book, Lawless said she conducted national surveys of voters regarding the candidates running for office, concluding that sexism in politics is not what is obstructing women’s representation in Congress.
“There was very, very little evidence that there was explicit sexism on the campaign trail. There was very, very little evidence that there was implicit sexism on the campaign trail,” she said. “And — most surprisingly — there was no evidence that women and men run different kinds of campaigns.”
Lawless described how she gathered campaign ads and tweets, to discover that there were little to no difference between the issues addressed by female and male candidates.
“Both men and women focused a bulk of their time on the economy and social welfare,” she said. “In fact, none of these differences ever approaches any statistical significance.”
Using the same data, she also debunked the belief that women are portrayed differently than men in the media.
“Women are more likely than men to be covered and to be stereotyped as empathetic and as having a sense of integrity, whereas men are likely to be seen as strong and confident leaders,” she said. “That has pretty much gone by the wayside as well.”
With all this evidence, she said that the information relayed by the media is not significantly skewed by sexism.
“The media coverage that the candidates receive pretty much reflects the campaign communication that the candidates send out,” she said.
The actual reason behind the underrepresentation is the fact that women, unlike men, lack confidence and often believe they don’t have “thick enough skin” for politics, according to Lawless.
“On paper, you wouldn’t be able to tell [the male and female candidates] apart, but when we asked if they thought they were qualified for office, despite the fact that they have the same qualifications and the same credentials, they didn’t self-assess the same way,” she said.
Lawless added that “women were much more likely than men to say they didn’t have thick enough skin to run for office.”
“Men were about 50 percent more likely than women to self-assess that they were qualified. Women were twice as likely to say they were not at all qualified to run for office,” she said. “Women thought they had to be twice as good to get half as far.”