Historic numbers of women running for office but same old sexism?

Historic numbers of women running for office but facing the same old sexism & double standards?

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In Australia and around the world, historic numbers of women are running for office but to what extent are they facing something very, very old: the same old sexism and double standards? Kristine Ziwica explores whether we can glean progress — or lack thereof — from the current “women’s wave”. 

In Australia and around the world, more women are entering the political fray and running for office.

A few weeks ago, a new report from the McKell Institute indicated that the current Australian Federal election sees more women than ever before — 37 percent of candidates for the Lower House — running for office.

In the US, we have seen the historic “women’s wave” at the mid-term elections and the unprecedented numbers of women (currently six) who have declared their candidacy for the 2020 presidential election.

But while some things have certainly changed as evidenced by the fact that more women are putting their hand up for a seat at the political table, the current situation begs the question: What has remained the same? Do these historic numbers of women running for office face the same old sexism and double standards?

Do the current Australian Federal election and the early days of the 2020 US presidential campaign serve as a useful litmus test to glean progress, or lack thereof, for women in politics? The short answer is yes.

First, the bad news. In the US, there is clear evidence that, sadly, not much has changed. And while it’s early days here in Australia, there have been a few worrying incidents — the Captain Get Up sexualisation of Zali Steggall’s campaign poster and questions raised about candidates without children “lacking empathy”.

There’s also no escaping the fact that the current Australian federal election plays out against the backdrop of Sarah Hanson Young’s defamation case against David Leyonhjelm, with Hanson Young leading a mutiny of female members of Parliament who are joining in common cause across the political divide to protest women’s traditional treatment in politics.

Still, the lessons from both countries offer a mixed bag, with reason to despair and hope in equal measure.

The “likeability” trope shapes the US race

A few weeks ago, Northeastern University’s School of Journalism published a comprehensive study that concluded women on the 2020 US presidential campaign trail were consistently being treated more negatively by the media.

This has partly been driven by endless media meditations on the “likability” of the various female presidential candidates, which, as we know, is and has always been very gendered. Male candidates can afford not to be deemed “likeable”, while for female candidates it is usually a fatal blow to their prospects. And the criteria we traditionally use to judge the amorphous quality of “likeability” is also very gendered, with women deemed “harsh”, “shrill” or “wonks” for demonstrating the kinds of qualities that have traditionally raised male candidates’ esteem in the eyes of voters.

While the ensuing debate led some to conclude that the US media had learned nothing since Hillary Clinton’s defeat, there is a silver lining. This time around, many, including leading feminist commentators, who blessedly now command significant media platforms, were swift to condemn the return of the likeability trope. And that is new, presenting a media counter-narrative challenging voters to think more deeply about the issue.

In her column for Medium, “The Media Gaslighting of 2020’s Most Likeable Candidate”, writer Sady Doyle said, “Elizabath Warren has proven over and over that she’s a charismatic figure. Why do we keep casting her as a nagging school marm?” On the so called “nerdification” of Warren, Doyle blamed “our lingering distrust for female intelligence”.

Rebecca Solnit offered the following observation in her essay “Unconscious Bias is Running for President”: I’ve just spent a month watching white male people in particular arguing about who has charisma or relatability or electability. They speak as if these were objective qualities, and as if their own particular take on them was truth or fact rather than taste, and as if what white men like is what everyone likes.”

“Likeability” less of an issue, more of an asset, for women in Australia?

Here in Australia, women do not currently occupy the top position in any of the major political parties, so it’s difficult to make a direct comparison. But it’s certainly worth asking whether a female leader of the Labor party could have withstood six years of opinion polling suggesting voters just don’t “like” her – as they have concluded about Labor leader Bill Shorten. It’s a theoretical exercise from which we might draw a conclusion regarding the extent to which the “likeability” double standard is still alive and well in Australia.

Speaking to Women’s Agenda, Ruth McGowan, a long-time political operative (she managed her sister Independent Cathy McGowan’s campaign) and author of the new book “Get Elected” believes the “likeability” trope is still a big issue for female politicians. “There’s no equivalent of being a ‘good’ bloke’ for women,” she said. “Being deemed a ‘good block’ hides a multitude of sins.”

“Women suffer the ‘good’ bloke handicap,” McGowan went on to explain. “Men are already a block ahead of us, just by turning up and having a beer or playing cricket.” Women, she feels, need to compete on something else because they will never win at that game, emphasising competence, compassion or community strengths.

That said, the so-called Believability Index published last week by Ogilvy PR found that three of the most “credible” Australian federal legislators are women, including Penny Wong, Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek, all of whom rated well above their male party leaders.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher wondered if that was due in no small part to voters who are sick and tired of male politicians “overweening egoism” and their insistence on their “right to be prime minister”.

Surely the Labor party was seeking to capitalise on this, choosing to put women front and centre at the campaign launch over the weekend, something which Women’s Agenda Contributing editor Georgie Dent has pointed out the Liberal Party will struggle to emulate.

New research: Australian voters less biased against women

The most promising indication of progress comes from Australian voters, who research soon to be published in the Australian Journal of Political Science indicates are now less likely to view women who run for office less favourably or capable due to conscious or unconscious bias.

When Dr. Andrea Carson of La Trobe University, lead author of the research, Race to the Top: Using Experiments to Understand Bias Against Female Politicians, set out to explore the extent to which unconscious bias still negatively inclines voters towards women, she had expected the research would find voters still consider female candidates less competent and capable in “stereotypically” masculine areas. But that was not the case. Both Labor/ Green voters and Liberal/ National voters saw the female candidate as equally or more capable.

Speaking exclusively to Women’s Agenda ahead of publication of the research, Dr. Carson said that in addition to those findings, recent events have given her another reason to be optimistic. As a noted Australian expert on women in politics, Dr. Carson said she had lost count of the number of times men have put to her that women aren’t in politics because they don’t like the adversarial culture and/ or don’t want to be away from their families.

“The fact that we have so many women running for office despite the challenges, negates that argument,“ she said. “We have finally put to bed the myth that women don’t want to be there”.

It will be most interesting to see what other myths and double standards become a thing of the past as women reach critical mass. We are, however, frustratingly slowly, inching in the right direction.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

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