When all parties nominate women: The role of political gender stereotypes in voters’ choices

FOTO CREDIT: Henning Hraban Ramm / pixelio.de

In their recent publication in Politics and Gender, Zoe Lefkofridi (University of Salzburg), Nathalie Giger (University of Geneva), and Anne Maria Holli (University of Helsinki) inquire about political gender stereotypes and their consequences. Their work builds on and extends existing knowledge of voters’ gender-based assumptions about individual candidates’ character traits and their policy expertise.

Gender stereotypes are important because they provide a means for linking women with specific policy areas and men with others; they also link men and women candidates with different character traits that are, in turn, perceived as good/bad for the profession of politics. To illustrate, female candidates are typically perceived as warm, compassionate, caring, consensus building, passive, kind, and emotional, while male candidates are viewed as logical, rational, assertive, decisive, strong, able to provide strong leadership, direct, knowledgeable, and ambitious. In turn, female candidates are perceived as more interested in or better able to act for issues related to “compassionate” topics (e.g., health, elderly, children, family, environment). They are also perceived as more competent than men for dealing with women’s issues, such as women’s rights or gender equality. Male candidates, in contrast, are perceived as more apt than women to deal with different types of issues, such as foreign affairs, security and defense, and economics.

Based on these (perceived) differences between women and men politicians, gender schema theory suggests that some voters are likely to have a preference for one gender over the other. Representation theory suggests that when selecting a representative, voters are likely to consider which among competing candidates possesses the “desired” character traits and competences. This means that gender stereotypes about candidates’ traits, characteristics, beliefs and behaviors may impact voters’ choices between women and men candidates at the ballot box.

A key problem in the literature was that empirical knowledge of gender stereotypes in politics came principally from studies of the United States (e.g. Dolan 2004; Sanbonmatsu 2006), where two parties compete, women’s office holding is uneven, and the scarce female candidates come predominantly from the Democratic Party. In the U.S. context, a voter favoring a female candidate but holding more conservative attitudes faces a trade-off between following either his/her partisan or his/her gender preferences. However, these specific conditions are not present in many, if not most, other systems. First, two-party systems, like the US, are rare; a considerable number of democracies around the world has multiparty systems and uses electoral rules that allow for competition between many, not just two candidates (e.g. high district magnitude). In these contexts, voters’ gendered choices are not as constrained by partisan cues as in the US. Second, there exist many countries where female candidates’ supply is much higher than the US and where all parties across the political spectrum have many female candidates on their lists. Third, there are countries where the overall level of gender equality is much higher than the US.

Given the fact that related research was limited to the atypical US case, and that European mass surveys did not include modules on gender stereotypes, important questions remained unanswered: To what extent do political gender stereotypes matter in contexts where voters’ choices of candidates are not constrained by partisan cues, like in the U.S., because there is a large supply of female candidates by all competing parties? Furthermore, to what extent do they matter for voters’ choices among candidates where proportional representation (PR) rules are used and more than two parties compete?

In pursuit of these questions, Lefkofridi, Giger and Holli study egalitarian Finland based on primary data generated through three representative surveys: the Finnish Gender Barometer that was fielded in 1998, 2001, and 2012, the Finnish National Election Study (FNES) that was conducted after the 2011 legislative election as well as a survey fielded during the 2012 presidential election in Finland. The second survey (FNES) concerns voters’ real choices between candidates for the 2011 legislative election, whereas the third survey concerns a hypothetical choice among female or male candidates. Using these different types of surveys helps examine whether the impact of political gender stereotypes varies across contexts of choice (real vs. hypothetical).

Their results show that political gender stereotypes seem to diminish with time and that they are less pronounced compared to the United States. This suggests that higher levels of gender equality and/or women’s representation in politics weaken such stereotypes. While declining trends observed in increasingly egalitarian Finland could point toward a more general tendency of diminishing stereotypes against female politicians if gender equality is promoted in politics and society, stereotypes are not completely eradicated. In 2012, Finnish women were (still) perceived as better able to handle social and gender equality issues, while men are perceived as better able to deal with economic and security issues. However, voters’ evaluation of women as more competent than men in social policy could be stemming from voters’ experience with female politicians’ performance in this particular area.

Though the study by Lefkofridi, Giger and Holli finds that the basic patterns of stereotypes are the same in Finland and the United States, it also reveals that more Finns than Americans regard female and male politicians as equally good in most policy areas. This may connect to the fact that Finnish women did not just enter politics in much higher numbers but also got access to very powerful offices and more policy areas compared with American women. The supply of female candidates by all parties, the large number of women in Finnish politics more broadly and their engagement in different portfolios may have caused a lessening of stereotypes and increased trust in women’s competence.

This begs the question of whether this brings advantages to female politicians? The study shows that fewer Finns than Americans hold counterintuitive issue competence and trait stereotypes, namely that female politicians are better in handling economic policy or that they are associated with ambition or assertiveness. This suggests that as stereotypes fade out, the decrease of discrimination against women in traditional male policy areas (e.g., economy) does not translate in an increase of bias in favor of women. This contrasts with recent evidence on the basis of experimental data about stereotypes benefitting female candidates.

An important innovation of the study by Lefkofridi, Giger and Holli is the research design, which aspires at assessing the effect of stereotypes across contexts of choice: the authors find that stereotypes matter differently in hypothetical and real choices, which solidifies existing evidence from the United States. Similar to the United States, there is no statistically significant effect of political gender stereotypes on voters’ choices of ‘real’ candidates, except for the supporters of two right-wing parties (KOK and True Finns). Though their findings complement analyses of races for the U.S. House of Representatives, in the United States, a woman ran against a man, whereas in Finland, many women are pitted against many men. Importantly, the gender competition is within parties (rather than between parties). It is remarkable that, despite these key differences (i.e., the structure of competition and women’s presence) between the two countries, the picture painted by Finnish and American data is very similar; this is very important given that, to date, no evidence except for the single U.S. case existed.

The study by Lefkofridi, Giger and Holli contributes to the literature in three important ways: Firstly, they advance theory by exploring novel conditions under which stereotypes matter. They examine stereotypes in Finland, a case, which differs greatly from previous investigations regarding the state of achieved gender equality, electoral rules and party competition, as well as the relationship between gender and partisan cues. Competition between female and male candidates takes place within the party as all parties’ lists contain candidates of both sexes. Hence, supporters of all parties can select one among many female and male candidates at no cost to their partisan preferences. At the same time, however, the Finnish electoral system offers voters a unique possibility to discriminate against female candidates given that they must always make a choice between the two genders. Hence, by conducting a harder test of the effect of stereotypes, their study examines whether the insights gained from the single U.S. case hold also in a diametrically different case. Secondly, they inquire about the role women’s dosage in politics plays and show that developments in gender equality weaken, but do not completely eliminate stereotypes. Thirdly, they show that stereotypes’ impact may vary across different settings of candidate choice. Their results show that while stereotypes always work in the hypothesized direction, their impact is marginal where many viable female candidates compete.

To summarize, this pioneering study of political gender stereotypes in an egalitarian country with a multiparty open-list PR system produces findings with profound theoretical and methodological implications for the study of political gender stereotypes. It not only shows that gender stereotypes diminish with women’s increased presence in politics but also points out enduring disparities between male and female voters as well as voters on the different sides of the political spectrum. Moreover, it draws attention to the varying effects of gender stereotypes across genuine elections and hypothetical contexts.

by Zoe Lefkofridi, Nathalie Giger and Anne Maria Hollie in December 2018

Zoe Lefkofridi is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at the Department of Political Science of the University of Salzburg. Her research on European integration, democratic representation and inequality appears, inter alia, in the Journal of Common Market Studies, European Union Politics, West European Politics and Oxford University Press.

Nathalie Giger is Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the Department of Political Science and International Relations of the University of Geneva. She has published widely on representation, in particular on inequalities in party-mass linkages and party strategies, electoral behavior and electoral consequences of welfare policies. Her latest project focuses on the perceptions of inequality among citizens and elites and their political consequences.

Anne Maria Holli is Professor of Political Science at the University of Helsinki. Her research is mainly in the fields of gender and politics, representation and political institutions. She has published widely on these issues in edited volumes (Cambridge University Press, Routledge, Palgrave) and in refereed journals, such as European Journal of Political Research, Science, Electoral Studies, Politics & Gender, International Feminist Journal of Politics and Parliamentary Affairs. Holli served as Chair to IPSA Research Committee 19 (Gender policy and politics) in 2014-16.




Dolan, Kathleen. 2004. Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Sanbonmatsu, Kira. 2006. Where Women Run: Gender and Party in the American States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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