Sexist attitudes in the media toward female candidates don't just hurt women, they hurt all of us – lowering public discourse and damaging political representation. It's time to push back.
American women hold twelve percent of governor’s seats and make up seventeen percent of Congress. If these numbers sound low, that’s because they are. The United States ranks a stunning 85 in the world in women’s parliamentary representation. No matter which side of the aisle prevails in the upcoming mid-term elections, both sides can agree the US needs to draw on one hundred percent of its citizens’ talents to meet our huge challenges.
Many factors contribute to the gender gap in political leadership, but a recent study sponsored by the new “Name It. Change It.” campaign highlights the key role of sexism in the media’s treatment of female candidates. This sexism acts both to deter women from running for office and also decreases their chances of success when they do throw their hats in the ring.
Thanks to Lake Research Partners’ groundbreaking findings for the campaign, for the first time, we have hard evidence that the media is holding back political parity. According to Lake’s report “Sexist Attitudes Towards Female Candidates,” even subtle slurs in newspapers, blogs, and on television and radio negatively impact voters’ opinions of a candidate’s trustworthiness and values.
This makes voters less likely to cast a vote for female candidates who have been the subject of media assaults that target their gender or their sexuality.
In the past few months, the experiences of South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley (R), Representative Betty Sutton (D) of Ohio, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Elena Kagan have demonstrated how women of all parties and branches of government get slammed by the same denigrating treatment. Despite differences in backgrounds, careers, and ideologies, as they’ve traveled the road of women in public life, their journeys – a congressional seat, a gubernatorial nomination, and the highest bench in the land – have been regrettably similar.
True, they all saw some success this year: Kagan was confirmed, Haley won her primary, and Sutton is running a competitive re-election campaign. However, their media coverage distracted the public from judging them primarily on their professional qualifications. The consequences are far-reaching: Women who watch other women be subjected to degrading treatment are deterred from seeking office themselves. If we’re going to dip deeper into our nation’s talent pool for future leaders, we need to ensure a gender-neutral media.