The 2018 midterm elections saw a historic number of women elected to office. With the gap between the number of men and women in office shrinking, it would seem like women are finally reaching their long-sought equality, but are standards for male and female politicians truly equal?
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Study, 67% of Americans believe that men have an easier time getting elected to political offices than women. Some of the reasons for this belief included the female-specific obstacles of overcoming gender discrimination, facing higher standards than men from voters, and having to prove themselves more than men to gain votes.
There is an ugly double standard deep-rooted in many voters, whether they are actively aware of their sexism or not. This double standard stems from the backlash women get when they defy expected gender norms.
Female politicians are expected to personify female stereotypes, like being accommodating, nurturing and motherly, but for the public to perceive them as a strong leader, women also need to uphold male stereotypes, such as being assertive, decisive and demanding. This expectation is the challenging double standard women in office face: They have to embody both sets of stereotypes.
For example, a male politician can get away with being aggressively assertive. He may not be well-liked, but he can still be perceived as a strong leader. If a female politician is overly assertive, people think she’s too shrill, too bossy, too controlling. However, if she’s too nice or accommodating, people think she’s too weak or too easily manipulated to be a successful leader. Women have to be both assertive and kind in order to gain respect as a leader.
Additionally, some of the worst stereotypes about women – emotional, weak, passive, indecisive and hormonal – are used as campaign attacks against female political candidates. If a female politician becomes teary-eyed talking during a passionate talk about important issues, she might be perceived as emotional and weak. However, if a male politician tears up, he might be hailed as a caring and heartfelt leader. The point is not whether a female show of emotion actually negatively affects voters’ perceptions, but rather, the point is that a female candidate has to consider this as a possible outcome of a show of emotion, while a male candidate does not.
Female candidates must also consider how showing no emotion affects public’s perception. A male politician can go through his entire political career without showing strong emotion, but women can’t completely wall off their emotions without distancing voters. Consider Hillary Clinton, who chooses to control her emotions in public so that people will not think of her as weak. A male politician who chooses to act similarly might be called stoic or self-controlled: Words with positive connotations for leaders. Clinton was criticized for being unemotional and cold. She was not emotional enough.
The public judges women harshly if they completely eschew expected feminine gender norms, so female politicians must balance contradictory traits: Emotional and emotionless, commanding and accommodating, passionate and rational, animated and polite. They must always be both, and while this double standard hold true, women are still a long way from equality in politics.