No Gender Bias in Politics? Not So Fast

American University professor Jennifer L. Lawless reignited a long-standing debate when she wrote in a May 24 Washington Post article that “there’s much less gender bias in politics than you think.”

This is as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump calls women “ugly” and “bimbos” and accuses the front-running Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman card”. With this backdrop, Lawless’s denial of sexism in politics appears off-base.

Lawless acknowledges that high-profile candidates like Clinton face instances of sexism from voters and the media. But she says the vast majority of political elections lack systematic gender bias. The “growing ideological gap between the Republican and Democratic parties means that campaigns tend to divide along party, not gender, lines,” she writes. In her argument, voters care more about political parties than gender.

In her defense, Lawless correctly identifies a symptom of the gender bias problem. Women are drastically underrepresented in elected government positions, both at the federal and local level. With women disproportionately left out of leadership positions in the public (and private) sector, we need more women to run for and be voted into office.

Lawless is well-intentioned in her effort to dispel fears that keep some women from running for office. But in reality, getting more women elected requires acknowledgment that there are systemic barriers to entry that still largely exist for women.

In a response to Lawless’s Washington Post article Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, emphasizes the impact of implicit preferences. In correspondence with, Mo said, “I find that there is a gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious tendency to discriminate in the ballot box with regards to gender.”

Lawless directly engages with Mo’s research in her article but dismisses it, saying, “In the real world, powerful cues, such as party identification, may be more overwhelming.”

Mo acknowledges that “a ‘horse race’ of whether gender bias, the tendency for women to not run, or other factors are more important has not been conducted.” But while recognizing the limits of existing research, Mo maintains that other factors may still have a larger impact than Lawless allows. “It is much too early to rule out bias as a factor,” she said.

Giving weight to Mo’s argument, another study conducted by professor Dan Cassino of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University finds data supporting implicit gender bias in elections.

He reports that when male voters perceive threats to their masculinity, they shift their voting preferences to reflect masculine dominance. In his study, half of the married or cohabitating participants were asked to compare their own earnings with that of their spouses early on in the survey while the other half were asked at the end.

Cassino found that “men who weren’t asked about spousal income until late in the survey preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in a hypothetical general election matchup by a 16-point margin; men who were asked about spousal income only a few questions before being asked about the Clinton-Trump matchup preferred Trump by an eight-point margin — a 24-point shift in preferences.”

The shift in voter preferences disappeared when participants were prompted with a Sanders-Trump matchup, given the same experimental design. Cassino’s research reflects nuanced gender bias among voters.

It is good news to hear that, according to one recent poll, 75 percent of Americans explicitly say women and men are equally good political leaders. But it would be foolish to accept this as evidence for the absence of gender bias in politics.

At a glance, exit polls today show the potential for both party and gender influence on voters. In the 2014 Iowa Senate race, winner Republican Joni Ernst beat Democrat Bruce Braley, gaining 58 percent of the men’s vote and half of the women’s vote. The fact that Ernst did significantly better among men than the male candidate supports the argument that party affiliation was the predominant influence on voters.

But the 2014 Senate race in Georgia appears to tell a different story. Democrat Michelle Nunn lost to Republican David Perdue, receiving 38 percent of men’s support but gaining a slight majority of the women’s vote, at 53 percent.

These two elections demonstrate that gender and party affiliations compete for influence in ways that demand further research.

Mo suggests one reason Lawless comes to the conclusion she does is that “most [research] measurements that are employed are self-reported measures, so the measures that gender is not relevant in voting behavior may instead be manifestations of political correctness.”

To account for this phenomenon, Mo frequently utilizes implicit association tests, which measure “the strength of mental associations between concepts, such as white and black, women and men.” These more sophisticated measures can pick up on subtler forms of existing unconscious voter bias.

It’s not all bad news, however. As Mo noted, “people can overcome these unconscious tendencies to see only males as leaders.” With awareness of their own implicit biases, voters have a better chance of overcoming the influence of these unconscious attitudes. And when more women run for office, they give voters more opportunities to see women as qualified to lead.

Get updates in your inbox