Gender bias is real — this is how 2020 candidates can overcome it

Gender bias is real — this is how 2020 candidates can overcome it
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It’s no wonder 2018 was designated the “Year of the Woman” in American politics. Voters in the midterm elections sent a record number of women to Congress, with 127 female members walking the corridors of power on Capitol Hill. Many expected this wave of electoral success to carry over into the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. But a funny thing happened on the way to breaking America’s most notorious glass ceiling — the primary race is being led by a bunch of white guys.

In seeking re-election, President Donald Trump faces what is likely to be the most significant gender gap ever recorded. At least a half-dozen women have formally declared their candidacy for president, but none yet has “caught fire” and challenged for the lead. Women activists have taken notice, growing frustrated as they watch what they perceive to be less-qualified candidates such as former congressman Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg join Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden atop the polls for the past several weeks.


The common factor among the frontrunners is inescapable, leading to a flurry of speculation about the gender bias that some believe exists in the electorate. In her Politico Magazine article, “It’s the Sexism, Stupid,” Cornell University professor Kate Manne argues that recent polling is “the work of sexism and misogyny — albeit often unconscious, unwitting and the result of implicit bias.” To help make her point, she highlighted the “glowing coverage” O’Rourke and Buttigieg had received compared to that of their female rivals.

In an attempt to explain — some would say “mansplain” — the gender discrepancy in polling, a prominent liberal commentator offered a possible explanation that further infuriated feminists. In discussing the prevailing view that voters are looking for more than just an anti-Trump candidate, Ezra Klein on April 16 tweeted the fact that Buttigieg, Sanders and O’Rourke used the word “fight” a combined total of four times in their announcement speeches, while Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 MORE (D-N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisParnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial MORE (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenNYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Trump rails against impeachment in speech to Texas farmers Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina MORE (D-Mass.) used the word a combined 69 times in their announcements.

The comment led to a viscous rebuke, as women took to Twitter by the hundreds to condemn Klein’s comments as further evidence that men, no matter how well-meaning, just don’t get it. Women, Klein’s critics responded, have a disadvantage of perception to overcome. They must prove to voters that they can be strong and tough, whereas male candidates are given the benefit of the doubt. The different tone of campaign announcements only proves the disadvantage under which women candidates must operate, they argued.

So who is right? Do women really have to achieve a higher standard than their male peers in appealing to voters? The evidence points to a resounding yes.


Academic studies repeatedly have shown that women are disadvantaged in job interviews, pay equity, government service, academia and business. Often, the bias is subconscious rather than overt, but it is there nonetheless.

A prime example is a 2018 study led by Dana Kanze of Columbia University and Laura Huang of Harvard University that sought to explain why women entrepreneurs raise substantially less funding for start-up enterprises than their male counterparts. Their study involved using

linguistic technology to analyze the dialogue between funders and start-up CEOs at major venture capital (VC) pitch competitions over a period of seven years.

Not unlike presidential candidates at a town hall, competitors in a VC pitch competition are given time to make their case about why they should be offered funding, followed by a question-and-answer session with potential investors. In theory, those with the best pitches are rewarded with investment in their businesses. But Kanze and Huang found something entirely different. The questions being asked of male and female entrepreneurs were different in tone, eliciting different answers and, therefore, different funding results.

Male entrepreneurs were asked questions about their vision for the future and plans to grow the business, whereas women were asked their strategy to defend market share and prevent financial losses. Both male and female VC investors exhibited this unintentional bias in their questioning.

Women who fell into the trap of answering questions about how “not to lose” received substantially less VC funding than males who answered questions about “playing to win.” According to the authors, “the double standard inherent in investors’ questions induces like-minded responses from entrepreneurs, serving to undermine confidence in female entrepreneurs while breeding confidence and trust in male entrepreneurs with similar growth prospects.”

Importantly, the research also showed that women who were able to turn the tables and respond with optimistic and forward-thinking messaging emphasizing plans for growth raised substantially more funding than women who fell into the trap of “playing not to lose” questioning. This should be instructive to female candidates facing questioning along the campaign trail and in the upcoming debates.

Academic research has provided other strategies for women candidates to overcome gender bias. A landmark 2015 study by a team of Harvard researchers offers some clues that align perfectly with the political process that awaits the 2020 candidates. In looking for ways to overcome gender bias in job interviews, the researchers discovered that when equally qualified candidates were evaluated together, rather than individually, subconscious gender stereotypes became much less apparent in the hiring process. The study showed that the ability to compare the job applicants together changed the dynamics and allowed for a fair comparison between the candidates.

Taken together, these studies offer women candidates some suggestions on how to use the upcoming presidential debates to distinguish themselves and break free from the pack. Up to this point, polling results have been driven by perceptions of the candidates individually. The debates will put all candidates on stage together, offering women the chance to be judged based upon their performance, rather than gender stereotyping.

Academic research not only has shown that gender bias is alive and well, but also the path to defeat it. Rather than lament that women are held to a different standard by voters, female candidates should utilize strategies to neutralize the effect. Appearing with other candidates on the debate stage levels the playing field, while visionary and optimistic messaging will demonstrate competence, leadership and readiness for office.

There are several women in the Democratic field well-positioned to win the nomination. Heeding this advice could help them get there.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is senior adviser for Avalere Health, a health care consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.