in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics
Women are under-represented at every level of elected office in the United States. As of 2018, women held just under 20% of seats in Congress, 25% of state legislative seats across the country, only six women serve as governor, and, of course, a woman has yet to win the presidency. The political under-representation of women is not unique to the American context. Indeed, women's under-representation is a feature of other Western Democracies. Even under the leadership of female prime ministers, women hold only 32% of seats in the United Kingdom parliament and 31% of seats in the German parliament. Conventional wisdom suggests that feminine stereotypes may disadvantage female candidates. Feminine stereotypes characterize women as sensitive, emotional, and weak, and these are qualities voters do not traditionally associate with political leadership. Rather, voters associate political leadership with masculine traits such as being tough, aggressive, or assertive. The extent to which voters use these stereotypes in political decision making in the American context is not entirely clear (See Attitudes Toward Women and the Influence of Gender on Political Decision Making.)There are three ways that feminine and masculine stereotypes can affect political decision making: candidate strategies, campaign news coverage, and vote choice decision. The alignment between masculine stereotypes and political leadership frequently pressures female candidates to emphasize masculine qualities over feminine qualities in campaign messages. Motivating these masculine messages is the perception that voters see female candidates as lacking the masculine qualities voters desire in political leaders. Male candidates, because of the alignment between masculinity and leadership roles, do not face this pressure. Female candidates will, however, highlight feminine stereotypes when these strategies will afford them a distinct electoral advantage. The use of masculinity in candidate strategy leads the news media, in turn, to use masculine stereotypes rather than feminine stereotypes in their coverage of both female and male candidates.The ways that candidates and the news media engage with gender stereotypes affects how voters use these concepts to form impressions of female and male candidates. Voters will use feminine stereotypes as heuristics to form impressions of the ideological and issue priorities of female candidates. Feminine stereotypes can hurt the electoral prospects of female candidates, but the negative effect of feminine stereotypes only occurs under a limited set of conditions. Voters will use feminine stereotypes to rate female candidates negatively when female candidates explicitly emphasize feminine qualities, such as being warm or compassionate, in campaign messages. But, voters respond positively to female candidates who emphasize positive masculine qualities. In sum, whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision-making depends on the extent to which voters see messages, either from campaigns or the news media, that reflect femininity or masculinity.