Respect Equality

Political races between women are becoming the norm, study says

Female candidates are no longer seen as “outsiders” in most races for public office, according to a study released by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, although most voters still hold women to higher standards than men.
(Ponomariova_Maria/Getty Images)

Story at a glance

  • Political races between women are no longer a novelty, according to most voters.

  • While most voters assume men running for public office are qualified for the job, women must prove their qualifications, as well as their likability, according to new research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.

  • Most voters don’t believe that gender has an effect on a candidate’s ability to govern, but about half of voters say women are different from men in the ways in which they serve.

The majority of voters no longer consider political races between women to be a novelty, new research shows, and female candidates are rarely seen as “outsiders” in most races for public office.

Even so, gender biases are still prevalent, and voters still tend to hold women to a higher standard than male candidates, according to a study published this week by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to achieve gender parity in U.S. politics.

According to the study, conducted last year between October and November, most American voters don’t believe gender has an impact on a candidate’s ability to govern, but about half of voters say women are different from men when they serve as elected officials.

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters, Black women, Indigenous women and Gen Z were the most likely to say women elected officials serve differently than men, which was also found to be an important predictor of voting for a female candidate. 

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While most voters assume that men running for public office are qualified for the job, women must prove their qualifications — and their likability. Voters often see a female candidate as either qualified or likable, but rarely both, according to the study. The “double bind” of balancing a candidate’s likability with her qualifications remains intact even in political races between multiple women.

Still, female representation in government has made considerable strides over the last decade. More than a quarter of lawmakers in Congress are women — an increase of 50 percent from 10 years ago — and a record-setting nine states currently have female governors. Close to a third of the nation’s most populous cities are led by mayors that are women.

“Women have made remarkable progress at winning races for political office at every level, since I started on my mission to elect women more than 23 years ago,” Barbara Lee, the founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, said in a statement. “It’s exciting that it is now the norm for women to run against each other, whether it’s for city council or the U.S. presidency.”

According to the study, a candidate’s knowledge of issues and relevant experience is more important to voters than her personal story — a shift from previous research that found that women resonated more with voters when they shared more personal elements or passions on the campaign trail.

Additionally, a woman’s credentials, experience and even endorsements — which are more important for women than they are for men — are seen as most valuable when it is clear how they relate directly to voters.

“Voters want to see how a woman candidate’s experiences prove that she can make a positive impact for them personally,” the study’s authors write.

Researchers also found that voters tend to scrutinize a female candidate’s appearance at a much higher level than they do for men. In focus groups, respondents were quick to judge hypothetical women running for public office based on their race, clothing and appearance, including hairstyle, posture and clothing.

Participants developed their own narratives about each candidate’s agendas and political parties based on how they looked, researchers said. Notably, voters surveyed tended to favor women who appeared older than their opponents, connecting age to experience and other positive traits like “polish, knowledge, and pragmatism.”

Still, respondents said women that looked “too old” should “step aside for younger candidates,” which does not seem to be the case for men. At 78 years old, President Biden in 2021 became the oldest person in U.S. history to assume the presidency. Before Biden, that title was held by former President Trump, who took the presidential oath of office at age 70 in 2017.