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By Ben Guerin
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The professor will see you now - female politicians

3 min read

What if I were to tell you about recently published research which demonstrated that voters judged female politicians negatively compared to their male counterparts?

I suspect some of you would mentally file it away under Statements of the Bleeding Obvious: “I can’t believe academics waste their time studying this sort of stuff”, “we all know that”, and so on.

Which is why you should want to read about some recently published research which showed you’d be wrong. 

Let’s start with a fascinating study just out in the journal Political Behavior which reveals that British voters essentially judge male and female politicians the same. 

These sort of biases are not straightforward to test. Straight up ask people their views (“are you sexist?”) and people give what they think are socially correct answers. Ask people about actual politicians (“what do you think of Liz Truss?”) and you have to disentangle all sorts of other things – do they like or dislike them because of their party, their policies or whatever (and do they even know them?). 

So a good way to get at this is with profiles of hypothetical politicians. At its simplest you ask half a bunch of survey respondents to give their views on a 46-year old former accountant called David; the other half judge a 46-year-old former accountant called Sarah. In the absence of any gender bias, the two sub-samples should respond more or less the same. But if they don’t? Ta-da!

One of the many benefits of this type of work is that respondents don’t know what it is that you are trying to test when they complete their surveys, which makes it harder for them to give the socially correct response. More sophisticated versions of this approach use a technique called conjoint analysis, which allows you to vary multiple characteristics in the profiles and then isolate the effect of each change. 

When the researchers did this with profiles of imaginary politicians in Britain, they found some very clear results. Voters responded to the amount of work that the politician was said to have done; they liked MPs who were said to work hard and this was especially true for those who focused on constituency stuff, which was valued more than chamber or committee work. This can be added to a long line of research papers showing how much voters value the work MPs do in their constituencies. 

The more interesting finding, though, was that there was almost no effect when the researchers changed the sex of the MPs. If anything, on some things that were being tested, the hypothetical female MPs were slightly more favoured, albeit by a small margin. 

This chimes with another paper published recently, which drew on 67 separate studies into the sort of politicians people liked. Many of these studies were not designed to study gender specifically but they all included gender as one of the characteristics they varied, allowing the researchers to compile a meta-analysis in which they compared the effect of gender across all of the pieces of research. On average, they found clear evidence of a boost for female politicians, of about 1.8 percentage points, and of the 10 studies that were included from the United Kingdom, nine found women politicians receiving higher ratings than men. For all the biases that may exist elsewhere, here’s some good news. Maybe it’s not so bleeding obvious, after all? 

Your further reading for this week: L Hargrave and J C Smith, Working Hard or Hardly Working? Gender and Voter Evaluations of Legislator Productivity, Political Behavior (2023); S Schwarz and A Coppock, What Have We Learned about Gender from Candidate Choice Experiments? A Meta-Analysis of Sixty-Seven Factorial Survey Experiments, The Journal of Politics (2022)

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Read the most recent article written by Professor Philip Cowley - The Professor Will See You Now: On the role of an MP