A lot has been made in the media of Ted Cruz’s demeanor: Pugnacious and harsh, he garners near-unanimous condemnation from fellow senators, Republican and Democrat alike. But as I wrote in a previous story, Cruz’s personality – however distasteful he may come off to some voters – probably won’t be a major determinant of his chances at the presidency.
Unspoken in this reality, though, is that Cruz is at least somewhat insulated from personality-based criticism because of his gender. In psychological experiments, people are much more forgiving of male politicians who openly seek power, but they feel outraged at women who display a similar desire.
That sort of gender stereotyping raises concerns about how voters are assessing Hillary Clinton, the highest-profile woman in the 2016 field. Clinton, like Cruz, has weathered her fair share of personality-based insults. She has been called stiff and scripted, dishonest, and nakedly power-hungry.
Even President Obama, who bested Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, needled Clinton’s personality in a debate, telling her, "You’re likable enough, Hillary."
This go-around, Clinton’s campaign advisers have made a clear attempt to humanize their candidate. Now on the stump, Clinton connects her story to that of her mother and granddaughter, shifting the focus away from herself. She has granted more unorthodox interviews, including one with Lena Dunham, the writer and co-star of the HBO hit Girls, for her newsletter Lenny.
And she has made a play for millennials. Her campaign sells merchandise featuring phrases like, "Yaaas, Hillary!" and her official Twitter account sent out a photo of the candidate with the young co-stars of Broad City, a feminist hit on Comedy Central.
But are Clinton’s advisers right to be so worried? Can some of the negative stereotypes of her personality be attributed to her gender? And does she – or any other female candidate, for that matter – stand to lose votes because she is perceived as unlikable?
Research shows women leaders trade success for likability
Across a wide spectrum of traditionally male-dominated professions, women are becoming leaders with increasing frequency. But they haven’t yet been able to shed the social penalties that accompany climbing up the ladder. The same behaviors that are required of women to achieve professional success are also seen by others as "difficult," "abrasive," and "selfish." In a word, unlikable.
In studies where participants are asked to examine a job candidate, where the only variable changed is the candidate’s gender, they typically rate female candidates as equally competent to their male counterparts, but they’re perceived as much colder.
Behind this phenomenon is what researchers call a "backlash." Women who become managers in male-dominated fields are often the subject of intense negativity – employees tend to like and respect them less than male bosses.
That’s because when women act assertively or competitively, or when they appear emotionally restrained, these women are flouting gender norms about how they should behave. Researchers have found that this dislike comes from the perception that these women aren’t nurturing or cooperative.
The same research finds that when women do emphasize nurturing or interpersonal qualities, colleagues tend to like them more. Clinton’s campaign has taken this research to heart – which is why Clinton’s rhetoric has shifted to include more personal anecdotes about family and proposals to benefit children.
The "backlash" against women politicians is fading
Hillary Clinton is just one of several high-profile examples that lead us to believe the same stereotypes dog women candidates for office. Carly Fiorina, a low-polling contender for the Republican nomination, has also received outsize attention for her demeanor – with several outlets most recently slamming her for not smiling enough.
But the overall research on women in politics, conducted over several decades, finds that this "backlash" effect may be receding in American politics.
Voters tend to evaluate candidates on four basic traits: leadership, competence, empathy, and integrity. These four axes, first described by political scientist Don Kinder, have held steady over time.
When Kinder first rolled out this framework in 1983, men running for office tended to rate higher on leadership and competence, while women did better on measures of empathy and integrity. The problem was that voters value a candidate’s leadership ability more than his or her personality – meaning men held an intrinsic advantage.
That imbalance held through at least the early 2000s, according to Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women in politics at American University. Around that point, women started pulling even with men on the leadership and competence axes. (The men, to their credit, improved their standing in ratings of integrity and empathy.)
Of course, this balance has been tougher for women to achieve. Voters still reflexively dislike women who appear to openly seek power, according to one recent study. So this change may be attributable to shifting tactics that women running for office have adopted as much as any real upswing in voters’ tolerance for "ambitious" women.
In real life, party identification, not gender, determines elections
It may be true that a woman’s gender affects how much voters like her, and that, in turn, her likability impacts her standing with voters more so than if she were a man.
Though a "backlash" against women is still discernible in experimental studies, real life is much messier — and voters have many more traits at their disposal to weigh. In practice, a woman’s party identification, much more than her gender, determines whether voters will be willing to cast ballots in her favor.
Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, has long bemoaned this overreliance on experiments. To correct for their outsize sway, she surveyed voters in 2010 about their attitudes toward men and women running for office. Later that year, she followed up with a questionnaire on the same voters’ attitudes about specific candidates in a host of statewide races across the country pitting men against women. After the elections, she tracked which candidates voters ended up picking.
In a book chronicling the findings, she says that no matter a voter’s gender stereotypes, his or her preferred candidate has almost nothing to do with gender. Instead, Republicans voted for Republicans, and Democrats voted for Democrats.
What’s more, opinions of the specific women running for office didn’t really differ from that of their male opponents. Any negative feelings expressed toward the women came from voters of the opposite party, and it was typically balanced by positive sentiments from the women’s own party.
"The good news for women," Lawless said, "is that in these very heightened polarized times, whether you have a D or an R in front of your name makes much more of a difference than whether you have a Y chromosome."
So while Clinton probably won't push all image concerns aside — all politicians must be at least somewhat likable to win votes, after all — it’s safe to assume a little "stiffness" won’t doom her.