The Big, Bad, Bipartisan and Underestimated Toll of Media Sexism

Almost no one predicted Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. The media, and the pundits they employ, had already started talking about who was going to be in her Cabinet days before the election. This near total miss has triggered a remarkable wave of self-reflection in the media. But a key point is missing in this self-examination.

The blatant and too common double standard that Hillary Clinton (and Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina) was subjected to directly affected how she was perceived by voters.

This was not just a characteristic of this election. This type of unfair and sexist scrutiny has been thrust upon female candidates up and down the ticket for as long as women have run for office. And, the way the press has covered these women has undermined them and damaged their chances of winning. The proliferation of digital news outlets and social media “echo chambers” only offer new avenues for sexism to flourish.

Yes, sexism in the media is an old news story. But, if we agree that we want a healthy democracy, representative of our population, it’s one that we need to shine the spotlight on — again and again and again.

The sexist commentary on Clinton — she’s too shrill, too old, not feminine enough, not likeable enough — were familiar, but no less harmful this time around. While Clinton didn’t lose the election because of media sexism, three decades of this kind of treatment made it harder for her to prevail. Our research proves the same to be true for all women on the campaign trail.

That’s right, this isn’t just about Clinton. Sexism is bipartisan. A Washington Post article about Elizabeth Dole’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 began, “Nobody has stumped in high heels as far as Elizabeth Dole.” Eight years later, the Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin was called “indisputably fertile” in Vanity Fair. And in 2016, a male reporter quipped to Carly Fiorina, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, “Well, ma’am, I never met a presidential candidate with pink nail polish on.”

Sexist media coverage and the amplification of these moments on social media and at the water cooler (admit it, you had at least one conversation about what Hillary wore to the debates) has become so normalized that we scarcely seem to notice — or care — how damaging it can truly be. A recently released survey commissioned by Name It. Change It., a non-partisan project of the Women’s Media Center and my organization, She Should Run, found that voters across the political spectrum overwhelmingly felt that there was sexism in the media, and especially on social media. In the last few weeks of the election alone, over 97% of millennials stated they had observed sexism on social media.

But what does it matter, you ask.

Well, women make up more than half of the U.S. population, yet in the country’s 240-year history (96 of which during women could vote) there has never been a female President or even Vice-President. Women represent just 20 percent of seats in Congress. And we’ve seen no significant growth in women’s representation at the state legislative level in decades, including from this year’s election.

The reasons for that are complex and many of them have nothing to do with the media. Women are less likely to be recruited into politics than men; they are less likely to see themselves as qualified to be legislators; they have less immediate access to fundraising networks; and, unlike men, they have to be both qualified and likeable (whereas a ornery man can be heralded as a loveable rascal-type). Compounded by media bias, women are deterred from running for office.

So why focus on media messages given all of the other barriers? It’s simple. Our research shows that sexism hurts voters opinions of women candidates on the campaign trail and that calling out and responding to sexist media coverage can mitigate or reverse its negative effect on female candidates. And while it will take years to change the collective psychology and social networks that systematically disadvantage women, when press coverage is sexist, simply naming it has an immediate impact — EVERY SINGLE TIME it happens. And at any level of office.

Because sexism is not limited to women in high profile races. Ask Carli Thomas, a student leader at UC San Diego who was called a “fat whore” on the pages of a student-run newspaper. Or Angela Hunt, who at 34 was the youngest member to serve on Dallas’s city council. While considering a run for mayor in 2011, she was questioned by members of the press about her ability to run a campaign and manage a family, a question not asked of potential male candidates.

These women, and others like them, deserve better than a community that suggests “it’s not that bad.”

Minimizing media sexism only normalizes it further. Instead, we need to hold members of the press accountable for their coverage, and including praising the many journalists who avoid sexist tropes. We also need to hold ourselves and our friends and family accountable. If you got into a 36-comment Facebook war about Harambe, but you liked your friend’s post about how we really need a “mom” in the White House, you need to give this some more thought.

In the meantime, there are some encouraging signs. In the two weeks since the election alone, She Should Run has had more than 2500 women across the country and from both sides of the aisle step up and say they are interested in running for office someday. It seems that many women will respond to this election cycle with a demand for their voices to be heard. If the trend continues, there will be an unprecedented number of women running for office at all levels in the next few cycles. That means the media will have more opportunities than ever to get it right. Best to start practicing.