The jam-packed 2020 Democratic presidential field includes six women, the largest-ever number of women to run for a party’s presidential nomination. But a new study finds that some Americans still question whether women have the emotional fitness necessary to hold office.
A Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) analysis of the General Social Survey, a broad study of attitudes and opinions conducted every two years, found that 13 percent of Americans still have serious doubts about women’s emotional suitability for political office. And while that number represents a substantial decline in the bias against women in politics since the 1970s, it still represents a real hurdle for women running for office.
Republicans were almost three times as likely as Democrats to believe that men were better suited emotionally for politics than women. Respondents with higher levels of education had more favorable views of women in politics, and the overall bias of both older and younger respondents has decreased significantly, showing people of all ages are increasingly open to women entering the political arena.
“The one word is headwinds. We’ve made tremendous strides, tremendous progress since we started capturing the data in the 1970s,” said Dr. Nicole Smith, co-author of the poll and chief economist for CEW.
Still, a bias still exists against women in politics, which might hamper their chances of winning elections.
“You have to be better, faster, quicker than anyone you’re competing against,” Smith said of female candidates. “Whatever the starting line is, we’re already starting off a few paces behind.”
According to CEW, this bias is deeply rooted in American culture. “Expectations of women remain rooted in the long-held stereotypes about their roles as caregivers and nurturers. The characteristics associated with these roles are not necessarily seen as compatible with the responsibilities of the commander in chief,” CEW wrote in their poll summary.
Case in point: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Clinton marketed herself as the most experienced candidate to ever run for president, but was dogged by questions concerning her temperament and general likability.
It was a problem female candidates commonly face: Women in politics need to be strong and decisive, but doing so risks making voters uncomfortable by pushing the boundaries of typical gender norms, according to CEW.
A successful, powerful woman could risk coming off as shrill and demanding. At the same time, she could read as too soft on serious issues facing the country such as national security or defense.
“There’s a thin line that women have had to navigate between being too emotional and being seen as a commander and they get labeled unfairly based on how well they walk that line,” argued Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist and political contributor for CBS News.
Looking ahead to 2020, Sanchez said that “in today’s election cycle, that line is fading and theres the ability to exceed and surpass any of those false narratives to allow voters to understand the depth of the candidate.”
But Lynda Tran, a partner at 270 Strategies and CBSN contributor, doubts that inherent bias against women in politics will ever fade away completely.
“The same folks who criticized Hillary Clinton for her ‘tone of voice’ would likely be uncomfortable with a woman executive or a woman in any position of power. I’m not sure we will ever escape that kind of deep-seated bias,” said Tran, a Democratic strategist.
Smith noted that the issue can also be seen in media coverage of the 2020 race, citing the sudden rise of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has emerged recently as a serious Democratic contender amid much attention from the press.
“We’re observing even the media in some ways being much more captivated of a notion of a man running [for president] than a woman,” Smith said.
Georgetown’s findings also appear to align with aconducted just before the 2018 midterm elections. The CBS News found that while there were a record number of women running for Congress, there’s still a deep partisan divide on whether things would be better with more women in office.
A substantial majority of Democratic women — 76 percent — believe that the U.S. would improve if it had more women in political office, according to the poll. But only 39 percent of independent women and 25 percent of Republican women agreed.
A record number of women were electedin the 2018 midterm elections. But Smith, Tran and Sanchez all agree says there’s still a “ways to go” when it comes to both expectations for women in leadership and how women candidates may be judged at the ballot box next year.