When it comes to gender bias in politics, be confrontational.


A recent New York Times article by Astead Herndon begins with this vignette from Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s event in Merrimack, New Hampshire:

Christine Bagley, 65, said Ms. Warren had been her top choice but described her as 'a bit of a bulldog,' saying Mr. Buttigieg made her feel more “hopeful and inspired.” Lois Luddy, 66, had also considered Ms. Warren, but said she was too 'bellicose.'

'It's always fight, fight, fight, fight, fight,' Ms. Luddy said of Ms. Warren, repeating the word for emphasis. 'Someone needs to tell her to calm down.'

Ms. Bagley shot back: 'Would you say that if she wasn't a woman?'

Be a Christine, not a Lois.

Christine’s question is one that we should all be asking in this presidential election – to others and to ourselves, and it is one that distills more complex analyses of gender bias to a relatively simple measure of equal standards. When Christine asks if Lois would tell a male “fighter” to “calm down,” she offers an intervention that is at the same time subtle and impactful. If Lois is confronted with the realization that her answer is “no,” she may be more likely to both recognize and regulate the gender bias with which she is evaluating presidential contenders.

Psychological research backs this up, finding that making individuals aware of discrepancies between the perceptions of their behavior (as prejudicial) and their self-concept (as egalitarian) can evoke feelings of guilt or self-dissatisfaction that cause them to change their behavior. The effectiveness of these types of confrontation is conditional on the self-perception of the perpetrator of bias (i.e. are they concerned with being perceived as egalitarian?), as well as on the type of bias and method of intervention. Most notably, research in social psychology has found that there are effective ways to confront racism, especially when done by non-target group members. But research has been less likely to establish the efficacy of confronting sexism, with multiple studies showing that reactions to imagined confrontations about sexism include amusement instead of guilt.

But recent research from Laura Parker, Margo Monteith, Corinne Moss-Rascusin, and Amanda Van Camp offers a more specific and effective strategy for combatting sexism. They suggest that evidence-based confrontation – showing individuals where and how they have been biased – more consistently yields a change in behavior to minimize gender bias. While their study focused on calling out gender bias in how individuals evaluated applicants for employment, a similar mechanism may be useful to consider in political interventions. Beyond simply asking Lois if she would react similarly to male aggression in a presidential candidate, Christine could elaborate on the harm that stereotypes around gender and emotion do to evaluations of women’s capacity to lead as well as the evidence that shows how expression of the same emotion by men and women yield disparate responses that more frequently hurt women than men.

Christine should also turn these questions and interventions onto herself. Before posing her question about the unparallel standards that Lois may be applying to Warren, Christine seems at risk of doing the same in critiquing Warren’s aggressive approach to campaigning.

The research also suggests that engaging in these types of interventions to curb sexist behavior or beliefs might also benefit women directly. In a 2010 article, Sarah Gervais, Amy Hillard, and Theresa Vescio write that, particularly for women, confronting gender bias “may serve as an antidote for some of the of the adverse psychological outcomes that women experience as targets of sexism.” They find a positive relationship between confronting sexism and women’s self-reports of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.

So it’s a win-win when you challenge biased beliefs or practices instead of buying into them or assuming they're immutable.

Be a Ron, not a Donny.

The research on confronting sexism and racism also suggests that the most effective and persuasive interventions come from those individuals who are not members of groups most marginalized by these biases. Reviewing the consistency of these findings, scholars Jill Gulker, Aimee Mark, and Margo Monteith write, “Non-targets may be more effective confronters than targets because they are not perceived as having a vested interest in curbing prejudice.” They are less to be perceived as “complainers” and thus taken more seriously when calling out biased behavior. So what does this mean for curbing sexism in presidential politics? It means that Christine cannot do this work alone. Men, and particularly white men, have to join the fight.

Two recent anecdotes from presidential campaign coverage illuminate the contrast in how men can help or hurt the cause.

Last Friday, Donny Deutsch offered an example of what not to do on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. After host Joe Scarborough asked what might explain presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s decline in momentum over the past two months, Vice reporter Shawna Thomas discussed voters’ concern about the ability for a woman to win. Deutsch jumped in, questioning Thomas’ theory by saying:

Is it a woman or is it her? Or is it a certain stridentness to her that, do we want to invite her into our bedrooms and living rooms every day for four years? I think she has the same issue Bernie had. I don’t think it’s a gender issue—it’s a likability issue. I think we have to be careful. I think an amazing woman would be a great antidote to Jon’s point earlier, a different definition of strength if you will. Strength to strength but a different way. But I don’t think Elizabeth Warren’s problem has been she’s a woman.

Consistent with past behavior, Deutsch not only perpetuated stereotypes about smart women as “strident,” but went further to argue that, contrary to research, gender could be wholly separated from evaluations of candidates’ likability. In this instance, and especially as a white male with a huge platform, Deutsch does the opposite of what the research suggests to effectively confront sexism. Instead, he gives it legitimacy. Notably, Thomas – one of two women and the only person of color at the white, male-dominated table - did respond to Deutch’s rebuttal by noting, “[Warren’s] way more likable than Bernie Sanders,” though none of the men at the table directly intervened to call out Deutch’s bias.

In another, lesser-publicized, anecdote, a male ally offers an example of how to effectively confront sexism. At a rally for Elizabeth Warren in Nashua, The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse speaks with Warren canvasser Ron Jones:

'The biggest reluctance I hear is 'Can a woman win?' ' says Ron Jones, who, along with his friend Tom Harris, has been canvassing for Warren and had come to see her speak in a Nashua community college gym. 'I point out that a woman has already won,' he said, referring to Clinton's popular-vote victory. 'I

 tell them, look at other countries with successful female leaders,' says Harris. “I tell them, look at successful female CEOs.' Or just look around you. 'Women are the majority in the country!' says Jones.

Ron’s intervention is evidence-based and reflective of his capacity to identify and reject biases around women’s electability and leadership credentials. But male allies can go further, calling out sexism that may be more subtle but equally – if not more – pervasive. For example, New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s post-mortem on Senator Kamala Harris’ campaign for president highlighted the need to analyze how racism and sexism affected media coverage, Democratic debate rules, and Democratic primary and caucus schedules. Blow engages in the rejection of legitimizing beliefs, those beliefs that individuals hold to rationalize group-based inequities as rooted in inherent deficits instead of systemic biases. He writes, “It seems to me that the questions here are bigger than missteps, real or perceived [of her campaign]. ...It is fair to ask what role racism and sexism played in her campaign’s demise. These are two “isms” that are permanent, obvious and unavoidable in American society.” Researchers Benjamin Drury and Cheryl Kaiser suggest that this unwillingness to explain away structural inequalities as individual weakness (as Deutsch did on air) is a key factor in men becoming allies in fighting sexism. Allyship cannot only come, however, from men who share experiences of marginalization or inequity with women on the basis of other social identities like race or sexual orientation; the burden for intervention and change must be put on men who privilege most from the status quo.

In a political environment that can feel overwhelming for many – and even hopeless for some, it’s worth remembering the power that we each have to combat sexism and bias in our everyday interactions. So when it comes to gender bias in politics, be confrontational. You, those around you, and hopefully our political institutions will be better for it.

Kelly Dittmar

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).