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Media Sexism - Does Media Sexism Hurt Female Candidates?

Sexist Language, Gender-Based Name Calling Causes Damage to Both Women and Men


Updated September 30, 2010
As the number of female candidates running for office increases, so does media sexism and attacks that include sexist language. Should we be concerned? Does media sexism and sexist language hurt female candidates? Does calling a woman sexist names like "ice queen," "mean girl" or "prostitute" influence potential voters? Or should women candidates turn the other cheek and trust in the old adage, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me"?

A new study of how voters respond to sexism in politics shows that sexist name-calling hurts a lot, far more than equally strong attacks on a female candidate based solely on issues and policy positions.

Unfavorable Influence

Voters exposed to media sexism are not only less likely to vote for the female candidate being targeted, but often have a lesser opinion of the male candidate who's her opponent, even when he's not involved in the sexist portrayals.

"Name It. Change It," an awareness campaign to expose the damage caused by media sexism and to foster media accountability, sponsored the study which was conducted by Lake Research Partners. The findings were made public by LRP president Celinda Lake on September 23, 2010 at a NICI news conference.

The Worst Kind of Attack

Survey participants were introduced to a hypothetical Congressional race between female candidate Jane Smith and male candidate Dan Jones. Half the voters were exposed to gender-biased attacks such as "ice queen," "mean girl," and "prostitute." The other half, the control group, were exposed to attacks that did not involve sexist language but focused on voting record, policy positions and how candidates handled questions.

Voters heard exchanges that employed mild sexism and more significant sexism. Although negative attacks reduced the vote for both candidates, Jane Smith lost more votes following negative sexist attacks as compared to negative issues-only attacks.

Over the top sexism affected voters' opinions of the female candidate, but when they heard forceful responses to the sexist attacks from the candidate herself and a media watchdog group, Jane Smith was able to regain much of her support.

Why Fighting Back Matters

The negative impact of sexist treatment was partly (but not completely) neutralized when the female candidate and other outlets called out the gender bias, stated such comments were inappropriate and had noting to do with qualifications or merits, redirected the focus back to the issues and the needs of the voters, and pointed out that harmful sexism damages serious political debate and prevents the nation from moving forward.

Three key findings of the report:

  1. Sexism in any form, even mild sexism, hurts female candidates and makes nearly every potential voter -- from the undecided to initial supporters -- less likely to cast a ballot for her.
  2. Sexism hurts both the female candidate targeted by the remarks and the male candidate running against her. It's a lose-lose proposition.
  3. The impact of sexism can be blunted by a strong, immediate response on the part of the female candidate and others such as media watchdog groups or women's advocacy organizations.

Recovering from the Damage

The following direct statements from the study clarify each of the findings:
"Nearly seven in ten voters report being less likely to vote for Jane Smith after they hear her being called an ice queen and a mean girl; as well as more strongly sexist language....Sexism costs a woman an average of 10 points in favorability."

"Jane Smith’s favorability wears down when voters hear the sexist and the non-sexist language about her, but there also seems to be an extra price paid for a male candidate engaging in a sexist campaign."

"The best language to respond to sexist attacks acknowledges a desire to focus on the issues that weigh on voters’ minds, asserts sexism has no place in the media coverage and demands that critiques avoid a gender focus, and express a desire to erase sexism against candidates."

In addition to funding the study, "Name It. Change It" has coordinated a rapid response network to identify, directly address and dramatically decrease incidences of misogyny in the media that target women running for office. A joint effort of three of the nation's leading women's advocacy organizations, NICI is the brainchild of the Women’s Campaign Forum Foundation, the Women’s Media Center, and Political Parity.

Lake, Celinda. "Name It. Change It. Findings from an online dial survey of 800 likely voters nationwide." Presentation by Lake Research Partners courtesy of the Women's Campaign Forum. 23 September 2010.
Page, Susan. "Study: Sexist insults hurt female politicians."USAToday.com. 22 September 2010.

See also: Over the Top Sexist Attacks Turned Local Candidate into National Advocate

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