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Economic Uncertainty Costs Women Politicians

Northwestern researcher Galen Bodenhausen says that despite women’s political gains, an economic crisis can spark gender stereotyping.

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Fall 2019

More than 90% of Americans say they would vote for a woman for president, and research suggests that, in general, the disadvantages facing female candidates in past decades have largely vanished.

However, psychologists Galen Bodenhausen and his former graduate student Ryan Lei ’15 MS, ’17 PhD wondered, “Is that a stable gain, or is it a precarious gain that’s vulnerable to setbacks if the conditions don’t favor openness to female candidates?”

Research shows that people often look to men for leadership in times of war. Bodenhausen, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Lei, now an assistant professor at Haverford College, wanted to see if the same sentiment prevailed in times of economic crisis.

In their recent study, they found that female candidates face an uphill climb in times of economic uncertainty.

In an experiment designed to evaluate voters’ responses to male and female candidates, Bodenhausen and Lei, the study’s lead author, manipulated the participants’ sense of economic anxiety by giving them an article to read about the state of the economy and then examined their support for hypothetical Senate candidates who were either male or female. (The candidate’s party matched the study participant’s stated party affiliation.)

When the economy was portrayed as strong, male and female candidates performed equally well. However, when the researchers amped up the economic anxiety, support for the female candidate declined while support for the male candidate was unchanged, in keeping with the stereotype that men are more capable at addressing economic issues.

“Women have made a lot of important gains, but those gains can be reversed in situations that may lead people to question the suitability of women for leadership.” — Galen Bodenhausen

Certain conditions can trigger latent biases, Bodenhausen says. “Women have made a lot of important gains, but those gains can be somewhat tenuous, or they can be reversed in situations that may lead people to question the suitability of women for leadership based upon crude gender stereotypes they hold,” says Bodenhausen, the Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology. “And in our data it was much more likely to be men who held those stereotypes and applied those stereotypes to female leaders.”

Bodenhausen, whose research focuses on intergroup attitudes — beliefs people have about others based upon their group identities and demographic category memberships — says his study with Lei complements studies of women’s involvement in politics. One recent examination of nearly five dozen countries over a span of three decades corroborated that women’s electoral success in politics goes down in times of economic crisis.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there were two primary schools of thought on what led to Hillary Clinton’s demise. Some blamed her loss on sexism. Others say she lost because of the economy. “Our study suggests those two explanations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive,” says Bodenhausen. “They can actually dovetail in a way that may have disadvantaged Clinton.”

Bodenhausen is not in the business of predicting elections, but he says it would be an interesting test case if the economy is slumping and there’s a woman on the ticket against President Trump in November 2020.

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