The 2012 elections are over and it was a landmark one for women. Female voters made up 54 percent of the electorate, and according to exit polls, 55 percent of those women voted for Obama, coming out in support of equal pay for equal work, funding for preventative health care, and the right to decide what they do with their bodies. Thanks to a few key victories, women now make up 20 percent of the Senate, which boasts its first gay member in Wisconsin's newly elected Tammy Baldwin. Meanwhile, wins in the state of New Hampshire have created the country's first all-female delegation: a female governor, two senators, and two Congresswomen. This time around, gender, it would seem, trumped politics.
But many reports still show that female voters remain reluctant to vote for a woman. In an AP analysis of data from the 2006 American National Election Study Pilot Test, researchers found that when it came to selecting a candidate for president, gender matters more for women than for men. And that while women are more likely to vote for a candidate because she is female, they are also more likely to dismiss her for that very same reason.
Back in August, the ever-charming Fox News suggested this was because women voters “want a Daddy figure.” Others point to a resistance against feminism, and a sense that women are themselves holding fast to the paternalistic view that they are not as good as men. Sherrye Henry wrote The Deep Divide after her own unsuccessful bid for a New York senate seat. In it, she argues that women won’t support female political candidates because of the disparity between what women believe and their willingness to act on those beliefs—the “deep divide.” That is, women say they want equality, but do they really?
The truth is that double standards still exist between women and men in positions of power, and female candidates are often asked to be not only as qualified and appealing as their male counterparts, but far more so. Tiffany Dufu, president of the White House Project, a nonprofit organization committed to increasing female leadership in politics and elsewhere, has said that female voters are indeed tougher on female candidates and that, in fact, “any individual who does not fit the leadership status quo –a man, and usually a privileged, white one -- has to meet a higher bar”. The same divergent expectations for women versus men show up in other fields, such as medicine, where a male surgeon may be the preferred choice unless, of course, his female counterpart graduated the top of her Ivy League class, has an impeccable track record and selective patient list, and is otherwise unimpeachable.
Women still judge other women against the standards initiated and maintained by men. And because many women know what it’s like to feel judged, they turn that judgment back on one another. Women are notoriously harsh towards other women, especially in the professional sense. According to a recent study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, women bully other women at work—verbal abuse, job sabotage, misuse of authority, and destroying of relationships—more than 70 percent of the time. Another study by Business Environment found 72 percent of women judged female coworkers based on what they wore to the office.
None of this is helped by Hollywood, which continues to perpetuate the notion of the “career” (ever hear of the “career” man?) woman as a bitchy, unwomanly, Prada-wearing devil. Many of these movies, marketed largely to women, depict powerful women as, at best, something to be wary of, and at worst, something to disdain. Women want to like their female candidates. In the voting booths, do they want to support the tough, demanding boss lady they’d never invite over for dinner? Or the nurturing, motherly softy who’d get squashed on the Senate floor? Can a woman ever be both? Can she be neither? Unfortunately it’s been hard to convince voters that women aren’t necessarily one or the other: good at their jobs or likable.
Women’s resistance to female candidates could also be owing to how she looks. Looks do matter. In her groundbreaking 1999 book, Survival of the Prettiest, Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff argued that good-looking people get better jobs, are better paid, and have an easier time in life. Evolutionarily speaking, pretty people win. Science confirms this as it relates to politics: A 2006 study from the University of Helsinki looked at the role of beauty in politics and found that the better-looking the candidate, the more competent, trustworthy, and likeable he or she was perceived to be.
The study also looked at male candidates, but again, the stakes are higher for women, who are judged if they’re unattractive and then judged if they do something about it. Just look at Nancy Pelosi: Bright-eyed in her early 70s, the “glamorous grandma”—as the press have dubbed her in articles that continue to focus nearly as much on her face as on her politics—has endured ridicule for preternaturally dewy skin and eyebrows that seem ever on the rise. Oh, and that she wears too much makeup. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has hair watchdogs monitoring her every straightening. She is one of the most accomplished politicians of the century, but her choice of hair accessories—scrunchie or headband? — is still hotly debated. Her longtime hair stylist even got a book deal.
It’s different for men. Sure, there was talk about Romney’s overall looks (a University of California study even quantified those looks as a 99 out of a possible 100 in a study that looked at “facial competence” of politicians). Obama’s personal style earned fans that ranged from Womens Wear Daily to Barbara Walters. But the comments about these men were for the most part confined to praise, or simple observation. Their looks weren’t vehicles. Nothing along the lines of one online commentary about Michelle Bachmann’s transformation “from Minnesota Mom to Beltway Barbie.” One of the post’s two female authors later said, “When [Bachmann’s] numbers went down, she should have brought down her neckline. Might have helped.”
The good news about the victories of Election 2012 is that Americans—men and women—are becoming more conditioned to the notion of female power. With every victory, women in charge will no longer be seen as an aberration, a fluke, rarities to be examined and analyzed like specimens.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com