NEW Research: How Women Candidates Can Respond to Sexism on the Campaign Trail

Amanda Hunter | Feb 17, 2021

At the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, we learned from our Rising to the Occasion research that one of the qualities voters factor into a woman candidate’s electability is her ability to handle a crisis. Our just-released research, Putting Sexism in Its Place on the Campaign Trail, adds another dimension to the question of electability: how women candidates address the sexism they face, or if they choose to address it at all. Conventional wisdom about handling sexism has been that women candidates should ignore it—that staying silent was a strong response, and one that signals leadership and electability to voters. This research debunks those perceptions, showing instead that voters do not see staying silent in the face of sexism as a sign of strength, and are actually more likely see it as a weakness. Voters view how a woman candidate responds to sexism as a demonstration of her leadership, not as something that weakens it.

With a record-breaking number of women running for and holding elected office, we are also seeing more women candidates publicly face sexism. From the verbal attack Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received from Rep. Ted Yoho on the steps of the Capitol last summer, to the intense media scrutiny over Kamala Harris’s facial expressions at the Vice-Presidential debate, there has never been a more crucial time for this research, which offers practical tips to women candidates on the thorny questions of whether and how to address sexism.

In a sign of progress, Putting Sexism in Its Place on the Campaign Trail reveals that a majority of voters agree that women candidates are likely to face sexism on the campaign trail. And, voters broadly support candidates in speaking out—if they do it the right way, which voters say is with a calm and confident manner. Voters want women leaders to respond in a professional way, showing that she’s true to her values but can also lead. The only reaction voters preferred less than staying silent in response to sexism was showing anger or retaliation.

We also found that perceptions of severity are important: voters are generally supportive of women candidates responding to “serious” incidents of sexism. However, among research participants we found a strong association with partisanship when it came to the definition of “serious.” Older voters, Republicans, and male voters are less likely to perceive incidents as sexist, and are therefore less likely to support a woman candidate responding to it.

In addition to offering a calm, confident reply, centering responses around what is universally fair resonates the most with voters because that they want a leader who values the well-being of women and girls and can appeal to universal values. Voters commonly stated that they looked for strong leaders with backbone who speak up for not only themselves, but women everywhere who face discrimination. As we saw with the #MeToo movement, change happens when women speak up and inspire more women to do the same – it’s about doing what’s right, not what’s easy.

Importantly, our research indicates key differences in how voters react to women candidates responding to sexism based on their age and race. Among voters, results show increased scrutiny of younger women regarding their professionalism and an increased likelihood to perceive anger from women of color candidates when responding to sexism. The overall strategy candidates voters prefer against sexist incidents—an authentic, calm, confident response that stays focused on the job at hand—does not change based on race and age. It is still important for younger women and women of color to address sexism when they feel compelled to do so.

Essentially, Putting Sexism in its Place on the Campaign Trail shows that a sexist situation presents a leadership test that women candidates can pass. For example, just last week, we saw Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer offer a strong, confident response to recent sexist comments from the State Senate Majority leader—Governor Whitmer demonstrated her sound leadership in that moment.

Women on the campaign trail may not have much time to think about how to respond to a sexist comment or situation. It is good news for women that standing up for themselves is an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and strength.

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