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Would we say this about a man? Changing how we talk about women in politics

In a now infamous soundbite from a Rolling Stone interview this past September, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said of fellow presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you  imagine that, the face of our next president?” Trump quickly tried to backtrack, saying he was referring to Fiorina’s persona and not her physical appearance. However, when asked to address Trump’s comments during the Republican debate-and what she thought of Trump’s comments, Fiorina cooly replied, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”  For the rest of the debate, Fiorina presented well-prepared and substantive comments with her signature poise and CEO-type presence. After the debate, commentators said Fiorina shined and many agreed she had some of the clearest policy positions and the most well-rehearsed responses of any candidates that night. She also experienced a subsequent uptick in the polls


But the story of Fiorina’s success in the second Republican debate is not necessarily the tale of female empowerment it initially seems; instead it provides evidence of a larger societal problem that women like Carly Fiorina know only too well -- a lack of equal respect. 

Unequal Treatment 

Not only are women underrepresented in elected office, but the discourse surrounding women in politics is biased toward extraneous observations about personal appearance. Comments like those made by Trump are, sadly, all too frequent towards women candidates; particularly at higher levels of elected office. The day after the Republican presidential debate, Fiorina explained to CNN’s New Day, “Women are half this nation. Half the potential of this nation. But somehow we still spend a lot of time talking about women's appearance and not their qualifications.

In this day and age, (white) men are still accepted as the norm for elective office holders and women have to fight tooth-and-nail to earn their seat. This is even more true for women of color. The higher the level of office, the higher the bar women have to clear to prove they are “just as qualified” as male candidates. While the presidential debates bring this problem of equal respect into the national spotlight, unequal treatment of women in politics is present at every level. Much needs to happen for women to be treated equally in American politics. And this includes not only changes to how we discuss women in politics but changes to our systemic structures as well. 

Shifting the Conversation

One key element in changing how women are perceived in politics is to make conscious efforts to utilize gender fair rhetoric. Gender fair rhetoric is defined by the Women’s Media Center as “symmetrical use of gender words and … fairness to both sexes in the larger context”. Achieving gender fair rhetoric requires conscious efforts by the media, the candidates themselves, and the general public to change how we talk about women candidates and to examine why we might be more compelled to judge a woman in a certain way than a man. It is not wrong to laugh at a sketch portraying a female candidate on Saturday Night Live, but we must take a moment to think why it is funny. We should judge Carly Fiorina’s business acumen as part of assessing if we would vote for her for president, but we need to stop and think, “Is she being judged more harshly than a male candidate for a similar situation?” Although such changes in discourse take conscious efforts often subconscious actions, this sort of critical assessment of our discursive structures is necessary to level the playing field for women candidates.

Catalyst for Gender Parity

While cultural change of this sort is difficult, lengthy, and sometimes painful, there are two complementary systems reforms that can provide a significant catalyst for gender parity in elected office and speed up our progress toward the equal treatment of women in politics: electoral reform and reform of candidate recruitment and support practices. 

Studies by Susan Welch, Douglas Amy, Kristen Barkman, and Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless (to name a select few) conclude that U.S. winner-take-all elections in single-winner districts are a barrier to women in office. In winner-take-all single-winner districts (where a candidate wins based on a plurality not a majority of the votes), there tends to be a large incumbency advantage, and elections tend to be noncompetitive. In the few open or competitive seats, winner-take-all elections in single-winner districts encourage political parities to recruit safe candidates, similar to those who have won in the past. In essence, this electoral system inhibits progress by incentivizing the recruitment of traditional (male) candidates and sustaining their chances for reelection; limiting the opportunity for female candidates to enter into politics. Furthermore, although parties do not purposefully exclude women candidates, work by Crowder-Meyer (2013) has shown that parties in the United States largely recruit from their internal networks, which are typically dominated by men and results in a disproportionate number of men being nominated. Holding that female candidates are no less likely to be elected than male candidates when they run in open seats, increasing the number of female candidates increases the number of female candidates winning and serving in elected office. 

One particularly effective electoral reform that would help boost the number of women running for office is fair voting. Fair voting refers to candidate-centered multi-winner voting systems that produce results more proportional to the votes cast. Countries that use fair voting proportional systems typically elect women at higher rates than countries that use winner-take-all elections with single winner districts. 

In general, fair voting systems improve upon winner-take-all single winner districts by reducing the incumbency advantage and providing incentives for political parties to make more diverse recruitment decisions.  Specifically, fair voting systems encourage parties to diversify recruitment decisions because voters in those systems tend to try to balance their tickets with both male and female candidates, reflecting a deliberate preference by voters to try and create the best possible team for district governance. Since voters are no less likely to vote for a qualified female candidate and are more likely to balance tickets in multidistrict arrangements, parties have an incentive to run more female candidates so they can win as many seats as possible. In essence, fair voting systems remove many of the barriers to representation constructed by winner-take-all single-winner districts.  

In addition to fair voting, PACs and political parties can engage in intentional action to advance progress toward gender parity in elected office by making candidate recruitment and support practices fairer. PACs and political parties should adopt voluntary targets, in which they pledge to contribute a certain percentage (ideally 50%) of their funds to female candidates or nominate a certain percent of female candidates. This would help overcome and change the traditional biases within political parties and PACs toward funding and supporting male candidates. Studies by Welch (1992), Bird (2003), and Crowder-Meyer(2013) have shown that there is no shortage of qualified women candidates, but qualified women tend to fall to the wayside of political party recruitment and PAC support practices. Intentional targets by parties and PACs could go a long way in remedying the candidate gender gap in American politics.Their success would send a message that it is not individual women’s attributes that matter, rather it is institutional barriers that keep women from being successful. 

Achieving gender parity in elected office, particularly at higher levels of office, requires gender neutral electoral systems, recruitment and support practices, as well as gender fair political discourse. Fortunately, the first two measures encourage the third. Both fair voting and recruitment reform will ensure the candidacy and election of more women. More women in politics moves women candidates from being an unusual, comment-worthy phenomenon to a natural part of the political landscape. As women become more and more important in the political process, discourse surrounding women in politics will change to reflect the change in status. Electoral reform serves to not only reduce the barriers to women winning elections but also facilitates more gender fair discourse surrounding women in politics.

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