Subtle sexism in political coverage can have a real impact on candidates

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As any woman will tell you, sexism and gender stereotyping are not always overt—in life, or in the media. Take the recent treatment of Massachusetts Congressional candidate Brianna Wu, who called out The Boston Globe recently for using an old photo depicting her as unprofessional, next to her two male opponents in suits. The Boston Globe apologized and changed the photo.

Wu pointed out a problem that will surely confront each of the record-breaking number of women running for office in 2018: subtle, unintentional forms of sexist coverage in the media. Women make up nearly a quarter of nonincumbents running for congressional seats in 2018, compared to an average of only 16 percent in the previous two electoral cycles. The vast majority of these candidates are running as Democrats, and so far female Democratic candidates are outperforming their male counterparts by about 15 percent. At the moment, all signs point toward the coming of an electoral “pink wave” this November. 

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Media coverage of female politicians often uses sexist language, and tends to focus more on family roles, appearance, and perceived “women’s political issues” when covering female politicians. Women routinely face questions that male candidates nearly never encounter, like being asked to smile or to answer questions about work-life balance. Female politicians have been stereotyped in the media as “ice queens” or “grandmas,” and have been historically categorized into one of four roles: seductress, mother, pet, or battle-ax.  

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Bluntly sexist language appears to be on the decline, and recent research has found that female congressional candidates are no longer covered differently by journalists nor punished by voters as a result of their gender. But what about subtler forms of sexist language? Could what adjectives journalists choose impact the popularity of particular politicians? 

We conducted a study to find out if even subtle word choices could affect people’s attitudes about female candidates. By “subtle word choices,” we mean adjectives that might seem harmless but have been found by scholars to have gendered associations. Our study uses the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, created by psychologist Sandra Bem in the 1970s, which categorizes descriptive language into masculine, feminine, and neutral groupings based on how individual words are perceived by the public. Bem found that words like “ambitious” and “assertive” have been associated with masculinity, while words such as “compassionate” and “loyal” have been associated with femininity. (Even though the BSRI might seem somewhat dated, a recent meta-analysis found that it has been remarkably stable.)  When journalists write about women running for political office, they might, consciously or not, choose gender-coded words to describe these candidates, and these descriptors might in turn affect how the public views these candidates. 

To test whether these subtle word choices mattered, we asked 269 university students to read a newspaper article from The Globe and Mail about a small-town mayoral race. In different versions of the article, we changed the gender of the political candidate and the words used to describe them, but everything else about the articles was exactly the same: one version used feminine-coded descriptive language (words like “compassionate” and “loyal”), one used masculine-coded language (“ambitious,” “assertive”), and one used neutral language (“friendly,” “adaptable”). Readers were then asked to rate how qualified they thought the candidate was on a 10-point scale and to indicate how much they liked the candidate on a 101-point scale.

Such language choices, we found, do have an impact. A woman politician described with masculine-coded adjectives was seen as almost 10 percent more qualified and 7 percent more competent than a woman described with feminine adjectives. These effects might seem small, but they are substantively large, and might have serious implications for elections, especially at the local level, where people are less reliant on party cues and more reliant on their perception of candidates’ traits, such as competence.

The results got more interesting when we factored in the self-identified gender of survey respondents. We found that female respondents were much more likely to rate the female candidate described with feminine adjectives lower, and much more likely to rate the female candidate described with masculine adjectives higher. Female respondents saw the masculine-described female candidate as almost 15 percent more qualified than when she was described using feminine adjectives.

We also asked respondents to assess the gender of a politician featured in a news story that did not include any gender identifiers. The findings were striking: Nearly 80 percent of respondents assumed the candidate they read about was male—a strong suggestion that a political profession might still be assumed to be a “man’s job.”

For journalists, this finding should be a wake-up call. While we know little about the effects of subtle sexism in the descriptive language used in normal news coverage, our results suggest that superficially harmless language choices can potentially change how the electorate views certain politicians. While more research on the subject is needed, journalists should be aware that even small, seemingly stylistic writing choices might have an impact on public opinion. 

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Rachel Garrett and Dominik Stecula are the authors of this article. Rachel Garrett holds a BA Hons in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. She is currently a JD candidate at the Peter A. Allard School of Law. Dominik Stecula holds a PhD in Political Science from University of British Columbia. He is currently the Martin Fishbein Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow (nonresident) at the Centre For Public Opinion and Political Representation at Simon Fraser University.