What? Me Sexist?

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What? Me Sexist?

Cecilia Mo examines why so few people will vote for a female president

by Cecilia Mo on Monday, November 5, 2012 - 12:00am

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Is sexism a thing of the past?

In a 1936 Gallup poll, only 30 percent of Americans said they would vote for a woman for president if she were qualified for the job. In contrast, by the late 1990s nearly 100 percent of Americans expressed a willingness to have a woman in the highest office in the country. With Hillary Clinton making a viable run for President and Nancy Pelosi elected as the 60th Speaker of the House of Representatives, is it safe to say, then, that sexism is a thing of the past? Not quite.

Half of the US population is female.

Many voters may not even be aware that they possess these kinds of gendered preferences.

While Gallup polls and high-profile female political leaders give the perception that men and women have reached parity in society, other measures raise questions about how far women have really come. For example, women make up only 16.6 percent of Congress even though they comprise half of the population. 

Such contradictions may suggest that what we think are big changes in attitudes toward women's leadership may instead be manifestations of political correctness. In other words, gender bias may have gone underground--taken out of daily conversation but remaining prevalent. These contradictions may also be manifestations of an unconscious and automatic preference for male leaders. Many voters may not even be aware that they possess these kinds of gendered preferences.

The key, then, to understanding these persistent contradictions is going beyond what people say they believe. Instead, we must understand people's uncensored--even unconscious--thoughts. Psychologists argue they can.

People have trouble pairing female names with high-level executive offices

With my colleague at Stanford University’s Department of Communications, we used a measure designed to tap into hidden biases--the Implicit Association Test (IAT)--to assess whether gender biases affect vote choice. The IAT is a test to see how quickly a person can pair two concepts (for example, woman and leadership, or man and leadership). Mahzarin Banaji (Harvard University) and Anthony Greenwald (University of Washington) designed the IAT to test conscious and unconscious attitudes toward topics like race, age and sex. My colleague and I tailored the measure to pick up gender bias with respect to political leadership, and we looked at whether it affected vote choice. We conducted our study in the critical swing state of Florida.

photo of Hilary ClintonThe study yielded an intriguing finding. When following instructions to sort images rapidly, the average person found it easier to pair words like “president”, “governor”, and “executive” with male names and words like “secretary”, “assistant”, and “aide” with female names. In other words, many people had a lot more difficulty associating women with leadership.

Why does the Implicit Association Test (IAT) matter?: It predicts voting behavior

These results matter since they reflect not just how people think but, importantly, how they vote. The more difficulty a person had in classifying a woman as a leader, the less likely the person was to vote for a woman. Those whom the IAT found to be the most biased against women leaders were 12 percent more likely to vote for a male candidate over an equally-qualified female candidate. We found this result was found even when explicit gender biases, like those measured by Gallup polls, were held constant.

Many people who explicitly say that they would support a female candidate nonetheless have difficulty associating female names with leadership roles.

Despite a society in which gender equity is politically correct and socially desirable, bias exists. You can see it in how people vote. Even when we consider only those who explicitly say that they would support a female candidate, we find that many have difficulty associating women with leadership attributes. As a result, they are less likely to vote for a woman candidate. So there appears to be a gulf between our conscious ideals of equality and our unconscious tendency to discriminate at the ballot box.

The outlook for female political candidates

The presence of bias does not mean a woman can’t ever win at the ballot box. To win, however, she has to be more qualified than her male opponent. Indeed, our study found that even the most sexist people among us were willing to vote for a female candidate if she were deemed to have more experience, better education credentials, or greater community involvement than her male counterpart.

These results do not suggest that people intend to be biased against women. Instead, negative gender stereotypes, traditional beliefs regarding gender roles, or authority beliefs that favor men unconsciously influence the decisions and choices many people make. These unconscious thought patterns remain real obstacles for the advancement of women in male-dominated fields like politics.

Given these findings, it is safe to say that sexism is not a thing of the past.  Measures like the Gallup polls understate the effect gendered stereotypes and beliefs still have on the way people think about leadership. A more careful exploration of the linkage between gender attitudes and voting behavior shows that gender bias continues to exist among many voters in ways that advantage male candidates and disadvantage female candidates.

To test for your own unconscious biases visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/index.jsp


Cecilia Hyunjung Mo
is assistant professor in the department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and a 2010-11 Graduate Dissertation Fellow at the Clayman Institute.

Responses to What? Me Sexist?

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07 February, 2011 Dustin (not verified)


I think Cecilia has some valid points here. What isn't mentioned, and I think would be an interesting study, is sexism in women AGAINST women. I'm often surprised how frequently I hear women say that they would never vote for a female President--I hear this far less often from men.

This goes the other direction as well. How often do we hear a man say, either directly or indirectly, that men that stay home (e.g., to care for a child) are clearly "whipped" by their wives or are not equal to other men.

Sometimes I wonder if inter-gender negative biases are lessening while intra-gender negative biases remain or even grow stronger.