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A new political science book makes a provocative argument: women in politics don’t face gender bias

Two years ago, a pair of political scientists in Washington, D.C. sent out a survey to about 2,000 adults in the United States. They wanted to answer one specific question: Did Americans think it was harder for women to succeed in politics than in other professions?

The answer came back a resounding yes. Americans perceived politics as an especially hostile environment for women, much more so than journalism, business, or law. One-third thought that women didn’t win political races as frequently as men; 60 percent thought the media focused too much on women candidates’ appearance.

"The conventional wisdom is that politics is harder," says Jennifer Lawless, one of the political scientists behind that survey, told me in a recent interview.

But Lawless thinks this perception is dead wrong — and that she has the data to prove it.

A new book says partisanship trumps gender

American University's Lawless and co-author Danny Hayes, a political scientist at George Washington University, published a book on the topic, Women on the Run, last month. There, the two make a provocative argument that campaigning for Congress as a woman is now exactly the same as campaigning as a man. In an era of increased polarization, they contend, gender doesn’t really matter. What voters care about is the "D" or "R" next to a candidate’s name.

"There is one defining feature that determines how people cast ballots and how donors decide to give," says Lawless. "That feature is party, not sex."

Hayes and Lawless’s explanation does have some weak points, particularly in how they measure bias on the campaign trail. Even so, it offers a convincing narrative about why there are so few women in politics in the United States — why our country ranks 97th for female representation in national government, right between Kenya and Kyrgyzstan.

Lawless and Hayes argue that women aren’t being kept out of politics because of an unfair playing field. Women get media coverage that looks really similar to that of men. Voters’ perceptions of candidates’ strengths don’t seem to vary with gender. And female politicians are just as good at raising money and winning races.

Rather, it's the pervasive and damaging perception of a stacked playing field that stops women from stepping onto the field in the first place.

Do you care what a female candidate looks like? Newspaper articles don’t.

Most of the arguments about gender bias in campaigns have to do with media coverage — namely, that female candidates receive disproportionate attention to their appearance.

This is likely true for especially high-profile candidates such as Hillary Clinton, who is regularly criticized for her voice, her clothes, her weight — the list goes on and on.

But Hayes and Lawless argue that it's just not the case for less-covered races. Congressional candidates don’t have to contend with a sexist media environment. When the authors swept through the coverage, they found little to no mention of anything related to appearance.

Hayes and Lawless combed through a data set of 4,524 stories in local newspapers written during the 2014 campaign cycle.

In this database of thousands of stories, they found exactly 17 references to female candidates’ appearance. By contrast, there were 32 references to male appearances (there were also more male candidates).

Remember, this is from a database of more than 4,000 stories. This works out to 0.3 percent of local politics stories making a reference to a female candidate’s appearance.

Many of the references have nothing to do with attractiveness or fashion. Three of the 17 mentions of women's appearance, for example, referred to Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs fighting in Iraq.

Bias still exists in political media. But it may not be as pervasive as we believe.

Just because critiques of appearance don’t appear in newspapers, however, doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. And this is one way that the Hayes-Lawless book felt a bit limited to me: It didn’t look at all the campaign coverage that now happens on Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms outside the realm of traditional publishing.

As a woman who is sometimes in the public spotlight, I can tell you these are the places where the most vicious gender-based attacks happen. So while there are few newspaper articles that go into great length to describe appearance, there are plenty of blogs — or Twitter users with large followings — that will happily tear into female legislators’ looks. I won’t link to them here, but they run articles with titles like "Democrat women who look like men" and "the 7 ugliest women in the Democratic Party."

Magazines are other outlets that will happily comment on the appearance of female legislators, albeit in a positive way. Vogue described Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s (D-HI) "scarlet blouse and black trousers" in a profile the magazine ran in mid-2013 — and an Elle profile titled "America’s Most Colorful Congresswoman" made a point of noting that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) "isn't afraid to wear fuchsia."

These aren’t technically biased campaign coverage; both of these articles came out in non-election years. But they still suggest that the hunch women have — that they will receive additional coverage of their appearance due to their gender — isn’t totally off the mark.

So in my view, Hayes and Lawless's argument isn’t flawless. It misses some of the places where bias exists. At the same time, the authors do show that these comments are rare in local newspapers, much rarer than many (including me) would likely expect. But that still doesn’t make them nonexistent. And that's important for encouraging women to run for office in the first place.

Perceived biases can keep women from running for office. And that’s a huge problem.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton speaks in Colorado. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images News)

Many fewer women run for office — or even consider running for office — than men. And Lawless argues this is the product of perceived bias. Women look at the electoral landscape, they believe the playing field is stacked against women, and they count themselves out.

Lawless has run separate surveys on how interested Americans are in running for political office. In 2001, she found that 18 percent of women said they have considered running for office. By 2011, that figure declined to 14 percent. Interest in politics stayed constant among men, hovering around 22 percent.

Women were acutely attuned to how the media treated Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the 2008 election cycle. Eighty-four percent said that Clinton faced gender bias in her media coverage, and 67 percent said the press focused on her appearance too much. (For Palin, these numbers came in at 49 and 54 percent, respectively.)

It seems entirely plausible that the 2008 election dampened women’s enthusiasm for seeking elected office. They saw an election that didn’t seem to treat women fairly — and pictured that as a future for themselves, should they ever launch a political campaign.

Separate research has shown that having more women in elected positions encourages other women to enter politics at lower-level positions. And some experts expect that Clinton’s run this year will catalyze more political ambition among qualified women.

"Even if she loses, just the fact that she was out there will encourage more women to go into politics," says Heidi Hartman, an economist who runs the Institute for Women in Politics Research. "It will be a game changer."

But Lawless isn’t so sure about that — she worries that just as women’s political interests dropped in the wake of the 2008 election, something similar could easily happen after 2016.

"Perception of political bias could be heightened by a high-profile race like the one we’re seeing," she says. "People will see Donald Trump and how he acts, and they’ll say, 'This must be what it's like for all female candidates.' Which we know, from our research, isn’t true. But it becomes the perception."

And this creates a vicious cycle: Women decide not to run, so there are fewer examples of non-sexist campaigns to look at.