By Cynthia Richie Terrell on June 22, 2016
Jennifer Loveless, Professor of Government and Director of Women & Politics Institute at American University, and Danny Hayes, Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, recently released a book called Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era, which focuses on the polarization of the current political field, and the impact that has on the gender of candidates.
What the pair found was surprising. Despite previously held beliefs, women and men running for elected positions were covered equally by news outlets, and women did not receive more negative coverage. While there was parity in gender representation of candidates in the media, this is clearly not the case in the offices themselves, as only 19.4% of members of Congress are women. So if it’s not a media bias, why are women so underrepresented in government?
They argue that the answer is twofold: the perceived bias is holding women back, as they believe they must be “twice as good to get half as far” as men, combines with an increasingly polarized political field that interacts with the current electoral system at the expense of women candidates. Much of the perceived gender bias in the media is a result of “buzzy” news. Focus on Hillary Clinton’s clothing, for example, is a result of her sensational presidential bid-- not many people run for president as it is, and thus everything they do becomes scrutinized in the media, regardless of whether they are a man or a woman. Lawless and Hayes found that of all elected office bids, 95% of women candidates did not have their appearances commented on by media outlets, supporting the theory of gender parity in media representation. Lawless and Hayes’ findings of polarization also confirms what a 2015 Gallup poll claims: political party affects whether a voter chooses a candidate far more than gender. For example, a Democratic woman is more likely to vote for a Democratic man than a Republican woman, because partisan lines have become more important than gender.
This is directly related to the dearth of women who run for elected office in the first place. The perceived bias certainly contributes to this-- it creates a self-perpetuating cycle of women who feel they will be receiving negative media attention, and thus choose not to run, leaving the field open to men who will run and gain partisan votes from both men and women. More insidiously, however, is the underlying electoral system of the United States, that favors incumbents and single winners, both of whom are historically male. This has created a political system that is unfavorable to women of both parties, leaving a severe underrepresentation of women in every level of government.
The onus to increase the proportion of women in government is not just on women who want to run for office, but on party activists and recruiters, on the media, on currently elected officials, and on voters themselves. In order to have a truly representative union, both structurally and culturally, the entire country must work together to be as unbiased and inclusive as possible.