What is the “ethical pedestal?” A explainer using the 2016 race

 

We’ve talked a lot about the likeability double standard – but that’s not the only one women candidates have to contend with. Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has consistently shown that voters put women candidates on an “ethical pedestal,” a situation that comes with pros and cons.

Voters have historically seen women candidates as more honest and ethical than men, and expect them to act that way. While the tradition of women being the “virtuous sex” is long and storied, this double standard has very real consequences for women running for office today: If voters even perceive that a woman has been dishonest or acted unethically, regardless of her actual actions, the cost is high for the candidate. It’s not that men aren’t hurt if voters think they’ve acted unethically; it’s just easier for male candidates to recover. Because the cost is so high for women candidates, those running against women often use negative character attacks as part of their campaign strategy.

The 2016 presidential race was a perfect example of this research in action. Donald Trump’s campaign used the tried and true method of character attacks and made Hillary Clinton’s private email server a centerpiece of his campaign. “Lock her up” and “Crooked Hillary” were mainstays on the trail, and those accusations were directly at odds with how voters expected a woman to act. While Donald Trump also faced character attacks during the presidential race, the impact on his campaign was not as large, and an argument can be made that gender played a significant role in this.

Women candidates’ place on the ethical pedestal can be a worthwhile asset, but can also be difficult to navigate. Beyond fielding character attacks, women candidates themselves pay a higher price for contrasting with opponents, an essential part of campaigning. Voters expect more from women candidates and feel that, by engaging in negative campaigning, a woman candidate is reduced to the status of a “typical politician.”

The good news? When voters do see women as different from men when they serve as elected officials, they are more likely to support women.

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