Although the electoral prospects for women in the United States have improved in recent years, there remains a widespread concern that gender stereotypes put female candidates at a disadvantage. Yet there is no consensus about the circumstances under which stereotypes will harm women’s chances. In this paper, we develop a theoretical argument about the conditions under which stereotypes should most strongly influence voter attitudes. Given the ambivalence of the existing literature, we also articulate a set of competing hypotheses about why, even under these “ideal” conditions, attempts to prime gender stereotypes may not be effective. In two survey experiments, we assess these competing expectations by examining the effects of a male candidate’s stereotype-related attacks against a female candidate in a primary election. We find no evidence that women are harmed when men invoke gender stereotypes, even in situations that should lend themselves to damaging effects – in fact, women often benefit. We find that to be true in both Democratic and Republican primaries. In an era in which societal attitudes about women in professional life and politics have become more favorable, stereotypes may have gone from a weakness for female candidates to a strength.
Jennifer L. Lawless is the Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. Prior to joining the UVA faculty, she was a Professor of Government at American University and the Director of the Women & Politics Institute. Before that, she was an assistant and then associate professor at Brown. Jen’s research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics. She is the author or co-author of six books, including Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era (with Danny Hayes) and It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office (with Richard L. Fox). Her research, which has been supported by the National Science Foundation, has appeared in numerous academic journals, and is regularly cited in the popular press. She is an associate editor of the American Journal of Politics Science, and holds an appointment as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Jen graduated from Union College with a B.A. in political science, and Stanford University with an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science. In 2006, she sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in Rhode Island’s second congressional district. Although she lost the race, she remains an obsessive political junkie.