How Gender Stereotypes Are Impacting the Presidential Race

The presidential campaign has highlighted the role gender plays in politics. FiveThirtyEight statistician Nate Silver published electoral vote models that show a chasm-sized gender gap. If only men voted, he asserts Donald Trump would win by 162 votes. If only women voted Hillary Clinton would dominate by 378. NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams recently asked William Paterson University‘s Social Cognition Lab Supervisor Elizabeth Haines how our gender biases play out on the campaign trail.

Williams: How do our implicit human biases play out on the campaign trail?

Haines: Well, because we’re observing people, we always have a different way of looking at people who belong to different social categories. One of the major ways in which this is playing out in the election is by gender. So one thing that we know when we evaluate people, we evaluate them according to their social categories. And gender being a primary one in this one is really important. So what we know is that there’s a shifting standard of evaluation. So what we constitute as good or bad in terms of the subjective standards, really represent different numerical values in terms of what is going on in terms of interruptions and so forth in those kinds of ways.

Williams: OK, let’s talk about the interruptions in the debate and debate behavior overall. Is an interruption by a woman perceived differently than an interruption by a man?

Haines: Well, women do fewer interruptions overall, in general. And it is oftentimes seen as a version of dominance and we know that there’s a backlash when women act in dominant ways and try to talk over or interrupt people.

Williams: And smiling?

Haines: Oh, smiling is a big one. One thing that I noticed in the debates, as I’m sure you did, was the amount of smiling that Hillary was doing relative to Donald. And she was smiling a lot and she got criticized for that. Now this is very difficult for women because in order to be perceived as nice and likable and friendly and trustworthy, they need to exhibit a fair amount of smiling behavior. But too much and they’re not taken seriously. And for a leadership position, being taken seriously and competent. So it’s a Goldilocks effect, right? Too little, you’re not seen as warm and competent. Too much, you’re not taken seriously. There’s a just right or just sweet spot.

Williams: And even vocal power. He is assertive, she is shrill.

Haines: Yeah, that’s exactly. That’s perfect of a shifting standard. That the same behavior, the same kind of vocal expression is evaluated differently given the target, given the person who’s actually exhibiting the behavior.

Williams: What about blunders or even scandals? Are men and women, are Hillary and Donald in this case, held to different standards?

Haines: Well I think they’re held to different standards for a variety of reasons. Hillary’s been in the political machine for a little longer so she’s expected to be more polished. And she has very little room for error, very little room for error when she makes a mistake. Donald has no history really on politics and he’s given a lot more benefit of the doubt in those kinds of situations that Hillary just simply can’t have.

Williams: What do you think the trickle down effect will be on our notions of sexual aggression?

Haines: Well, for a dominant male to say the things that he did can really create an atmosphere where this is acceptable from high power, high status men. So that really creates a problem.

Williams: But we’re seeing that a lot of men, including LeBron James and big football players, are saying that’s not OK.

Haines: Right. And it will only change when men start calling out other men’s behavior as unacceptable.

Williams: You’re a scholar of this. Have you seen a change over time from say the ’50s to now?

Haines: Some of our data that we’ve collected at William Paterson University show that actually stereotypes are as strong today as they were 30 or 40 years ago, even given all the changes of women’s status in the workforce and at home and so forth. That really things are remarkably consistent over the last three decades.

Williams: But in this campaign we’ve seen people react in such a visceral way. Do you think that it’s going to change the conversation or change the perception of gender?

Haines: You know, just because a couple women have made it through the glass ceiling doesn’t mean that the perception of the entire group changes. And so oftentimes when people see a woman who’s successful or a member of a group that typically has not occupied that position, they say, “Ah-ha. We’ve made it. Everything’s equal now.” And really what happens psychologically is that they’re seen as exceptions to the rule, they’re fenced off as not being complete members of their category, that they’re aberrations in terms of what the total group is really like. So I don’t expect that this will be, really create a sea change for all women, but we’ll also create some role modeling for younger women I think that this is possible for their future as well.

Williams: One more question. Do you think that in the 22nd century two people just like us are going to be having this same conversation?

Haines: I think it will probably be remarkably consistent unfortunately.

Williams: Because it’s hardwired human behavior?

Haines: Well, it’s hardwired because it’s in our thinking errors and we don’t tend to correct for the ways that we think about social categories and social gender. Once we perceive something to be true, we fail to recognize the dis-confirming evidence. That’s part of the way our brains are set up. So we don’t look for places where we might be wrong or counter attitudinal information. We only look for the information that confirms our initial beliefs. So it actually creates a dopamine response. We actually feel rewarded when we feel right. So looking for the information that already confirms our beliefs is one of the problems that we have to battle in order for this conversation to change.

Williams: Elizabeth Haines, thank you.

Haines: Thank you so much.