The scene at last week’s debate of Republican presidential candidates was a familiar one: one woman, 10 men.
At just over 9 percent, this representation of women is lower than what we see in Congress (19 percent) or among state legislators (24 percent), but sure beats the percentage of female candidates who’ve actually made it to the presidency: a conspicuous zero. The fact is, women are seriously underrepresented in the nation’s top political offices.
This election season, with prominent female candidates competing for both major parties’ nominations — Carly Fiorina (Republican) and Hilary Clinton (Democrat) — we’ve already seen a lot of attention paid to candidates’ gender.
For some, a female president would be welcome. A Pew poll conducted late last year found that 69 percent of Democratic women hope the U.S. elects a female president in their lifetimes, followed by 46 percent of Democratic men, 45 percent of independent women and 32 percent of independent men. Only 20 percent of Republican women and 16 percent of Republican men shared the same hope.
On the other hand, some continue to believe that women are inherently less suited to political office than men are. Since 1974, the General Social Survey has asked respondents whether they agree with the claim that “most men are better suited emotionally for politics than most women.” In 1974, 44 percent of respondents agreed. In 2014, 17 percent did.
Yet, it’s one thing to hold these views in the abstract and it’s another to exercise them in the context of a particular election, where the choice is between particular humans with particular political positions. Are those who hope to see more women in office really more likely to vote for women? Are those who doubt women’s suitability really more likely to vote against them, even when they represent their own party? In short, do people’s attitudes toward women follow them into the voting booth?
To shed light on these questions, political scientists Kathleen Dolan and Timothy Lynch studied the relationship between voters’ attitudes towards women in office and their votes in mixed-gender elections, where a female candidate from one party (Democratic or Republican) ran against a male candidate from the other. Their data came from the 2010 elections for the House of Representatives, which featured 64 races in which a Democratic woman ran against a Republican man, and 27 races in which a Republican woman ran against a Democratic man. Respondents were 3,150 voters drawn from 29 states in which such elections occurred, with gender attitudes solicited prior to the election and voting decisions recorded just after.
The findings, published earlier this year, suggest effects of gender attitudes are small: When deciding between a Democrat and a Republican, people vote with their party.
Here’s what the researchers found.
First, an individual’s party affiliation had a large influence on how that person voted. Regardless of candidate gender, people tended to vote for nominees from their own party.
Second, women were more likely than men to believe that there should be more women in office than there currently are. But when it came to actual voting decisions, this belief had a greater influence on men than on women. Specifically, when party affiliation, race and other factors were taken into account, female voters who believed more women should be in office were no more likely to vote for the female candidate than were female voters who didn’t share this belief. For men, however, beliefs about women in office had a significant effect: Male voters who believed more women should be in office were significantly more likely to vote for a female Democrat than were male voters who didn’t share this belief, again controlling for party affiliation, race and so on.
Third, men and women didn’t differ in their agreement with the claim that “most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women.” About 31 percent agreed. (Pause. About 31 percent agreed!) But for both men and women, there was no significant relationship between this belief and their actual votes.
On the one hand, these finding suggest that when it comes to actual decisions in the voting booth, the influence of gender attitudes pales in comparison to that of party affiliation. This could be reassuring — it suggests that people are neither favoring nor rejecting candidates solely on the basis of their gender.
On the other hand, it’s important to keep the context of these findings in mind. The votes analyzed in the study were always between male and female candidates of different parties who successfully obtained their party’s nomination. Gender attitudes could play a much larger role in determining who runs for office and who succeeds in obtaining a nomination.
As an illustrative data point, consider that in 2010, 262 women ran in primary elections for seats in the House: 134 Democrats and 128 Republicans. But female candidates weren’t equally likely to win their primaries across the two parties: 68 percent of the Democratic women won and went on to the general election; only 37 percent of the Republican women had the same opportunity. So when evaluating candidates within one’s party, gender attitudes could be quite influential, and might also interact with one’s other political views. (It probably isn’t an accident that Democratic women faired better than their Republican peers.)
Extrapolating wildly from the 2010 midterm elections to next year’s presidential election, my best guess is this: In a presidential race between a female candidate from one party and a male candidate from the other, party affiliation will govern many people’s voting decisions, with the influence of gender attitudes cropping up in more subtle and indirect ways. But in the primaries, where we’re comparing Democrats to Democrats and Republicans to Republicans, gender attitudes could play a larger role.
In the end, may the best human win.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo