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Jane Swift holds her twin daughters (MMR/HB - RTRIHGS)

Voter bias

New study finds traditional voter attitudes still hold women back in politics

By WITW Staff on March 17, 2017

Earlier this week the U.N. published its Women in Politics 2017 Map, which shows the global rankings for women in the executive and parliamentary branches of government as of January 1, 2017. The results are not wholly encouraging — they show a slow progression toward gender equality in both these areas at regional and national levels, as well as slow progress in the increase in women members of parliament. A new study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation offers some indication as to what is holding women back in the U.S.

The research reveals the continued impact of a long-held double standard, whereby voters are far more dubious of a mother’s capacity to balance work and family life than they are fathers’ — even those whose spouses also work.

Creating fictitious profiles for candidates, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation tested voter reactions to a variety of candidates, from married and unmarried women, single mothers and lesbian couples, to married fathers with young kids. They found that traditional gender roles still had a significant impact on how people perceived the candidates. Even when voters expressed concerns over whether a male candidate with children could balance his family and office life, they were quickly reassured if the candidate issued a statement addressing those concerns. This was not the case with married mothers of young children, against whom voters held the greatest doubts.

“Despite sweeping societal changes” said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the foundation, “many people still assume motherhood is a central role for women. That, in turn, affects how they view women candidates.”

The experience of many women running for office reflects the study’s findings. Speaking to The New York Times, Jane Swift, who prompted a national debate around motherhood and political office when she ran for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1998, said the double standard still operates. “The governor dad who takes his kids along to the county fair is a huge political asset, but it doesn’t work as well for the governor mom,” she said. “Being with children was seen as being distracted from doing your job.”

“I was most successful politically when I shut down the ability for the public to have a view into my private life,” she said. “That’s unfortunate, and it made it harder for me to be relatable to folks.”

Read the full story at The New York Times.


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