Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategies in Politics

Kelly Dittmar
Sep 6, 2017 · 11 min read

Adapted from remarks presented at the National Women in Politics Conference, co-sponsored by the National Women’s Commission of Belize and the U.S. Embassy — Belize (Belize City, August 31, 2017)

Political terrain is not gender-neutral. Women confront distinct realities and must navigate gender in different ways than men within political institutions.

The most overt gender difference is in the numbers; there remain clear gender disparities in the presence and power of men and women in politics — both in Belize and the United States. The United States ranks 100th out of 193 countries in the world in its percentage of women in its national legislature; 19.4% of members in the U.S. House of Representatives are women. By the same measure, Belize ranks about 176th in the world; just 2 of 31 members (6.45%) of its House of Representatives are women. Belizean women fare better at the subnational level, holding just under 30% of seats on boards and councils. By comparison, women hold just under 25% of state legislative offices in the United States.

These numbers are not at all random. They both result from and contribute to the dominance of men and masculinity in political bodies. Political institutions — in both the U.S. and Belize — have been built by and for men. This is evident in the actual structures of government, as well as in formal and informal rules and norms by which government functions. Take this example from the U.S.: it was not until 2013, nearly 100 years after the first woman was elected to the U.S. House, that women members had their own bathroom adjacent to the House floor. The U.S. Capitol was literally built without congresswomen in mind as a possibility.

Less overt, but perhaps even more challenging, are the stereotypical expectations that women navigate in running for and serving in elected office. Put simply, we all hold expectations of what a politician looks like (conjure that image in your mind and it is probably male), as well as what sorts of traits and expertise they should have. We also retain stereotypes of gender, altering our expectations of individual traits, expertise, and behavior based on our notions of femininity and masculinity. For men, these two sets of expectations — of politics and gender — are often complementary; the same masculine images, traits, and expertise desire in politicians is associated with men. For women, however, these two sets of expectations are often contradictory; women are tasked with proving that they are both “man enough” for the job of politics and “woman enough” to meet voter expectations of what is authentically and appropriately female.

Who reinforces these stereotypical expectations? Voters — in the standards to which we hold candidates and elected leaders, which too often differ for women and men, and in our imaginations of who is best fit for political leadership. Political practitioners are also key here, including party leaders, donors, and elected men — in who they support as candidates, in the strategies and tactics that they recommend to candidates (often adhering to masculine norms instead of disrupting them), and — especially among male officeholders — in their own replication of traditional notions of masculine leadership. Finally, women also contribute to the replication of masculine dominance in politics by opting out of the system altogether. It’s not surprising that women look at the political system and struggle to see themselves as a natural fit for it; stereotypes of gender, candidacy, and officeholding are discouraging to women. However, by staying on the sidelines of political institutions, women ensure that men and masculinity remain the norm in our legislative bodies.

In a recent interview with the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), U.S. House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told us, “This [job] is not for the faint of heart and you really have to be ready to make the fight. It’s worth it. It’s necessary for our country. But it is hard.” Her remarks are a reminder that we must make the case to women that their representation is necessary, but also recognize and combat the hurdles that too often stand in their way.

In the U.S., CAWP research finds that women are less likely to be self-starters, and more likely to be pure recruits; women are less likely to launch a bid for office without encouragement, especially from political leaders. There are a lot of reasons for this. First, research has shown that women often have less confidence in their qualifications to serve in elected office. But this is key — that lack of confidence is not some internal weakness or defect of women; women learn to doubt their leadership qualifications as early as childhood as they are socialized to see themselves as different than men, and too often lack role models of women in political leadership.

The decision-making calculus is also different for women. CAWP research on women state legislators in the U.S. finds that women’s decisions to run for office are relationally-embedded, meaning women are more concerned than their male counterparts with how candidacy or holding office might affect those around them. Women may want to run, but don’t see it as feasible based on caregiving demands (for which they are disproportionately responsible in most countries), family pressures, or engagement in other work in their communities or professional lives.

Another distinctive challenge confronting women across countries is the negativity to which they are subjected as candidates and officeholders. No politician is immune from negative attacks, but it seems that the personal — and even dangerous — nature of attacks on women is a particular deterrent to their willingness to throw their hat in the ring. While women may have the “rhinoceros skin” that Hillary Clinton describes as necessary for any woman in politics, they may be unwilling to subject those close to them — spouses, children, friends — to the scrutiny and struggles associated with political attacks.

Our research shows that women’s primary motivation to run for office is also different than men’s, and this seems to be yet another universality when talking to women candidates and legislators globally. Women run for office to make policy change; if the political system appears to them as an unlikely site to see results, they will often look elsewhere to get things done. Men, on the other hand, see alternative benefits of serving in elected office. In our research, male state legislators were more likely than women to report they ran for office due to a longstanding desire to be an elected official, a desire that can be fulfilled simply by holding office — even within an institution where policy results are limited. This difference in motivation can make it harder to make a positive case for women to run for political office.

Relatedly, when women see political institutions as “dirty” and corrupt, as is often the case in Belize (and the U.S.), it is even harder to entice women to participate. This is not necessarily because women are naturally — or universally — more ethical than men. In fact, perpetuating the stereotype of women’s moral purity and greater virtue endangers political women. When women are knocked of the pedestal upon which stereotypes of female virtue place them, the fall is often longer and harder than that of their male counterparts. Women are all too familiar with this experience, and may thus be reluctant to engage in a political system that will both require them to play by established — and sometimes ethically questionable — rules of the game, and punish them for doing so.

Even when women decide to run, they confront higher hurdles than men. I mention these not to discourage women, but to let you know that we know they exist. Giving voice to these challenges not only creates a space for camaraderie among women, but also allows us to discuss what can be done to overcome them in the short term and to eliminate them in the long term. These hurdles, summarized quickly, include:

  • Women are expected to prove that they are credentialed and qualified to serve, while qualifications are often assumed for men by nature of their gender.
  • Women are less likely to be recruited for candidacy and supported by male-dominated parties.
  • Women confront scrutiny of their personal life by media, voters, and opponents; too often, that scrutiny relies upon gendered tropes, sexualization, and even evocations of gender-based violence.
  • Women find it harder to raise the money and find the resources needed to compete with men; they are less likely to be members of financial networks, including party structures like those here in Belize that provide men with money to gain and maintain political support among voters.

I also lay out these hurdles to combat any claims that women’s underrepresentation is a fault of or is due to a deficiency among women. Even where women’s own doubts contribute to dearth of candidacies, those doubts are rooted in system of male dominance that has allocated power to men and masculinity and asked women to adapt, instead of pushing the system itself to change to better accommodate women and other marginalized groups.

That means the work of institutional change and advancing women’s representation should not and cannot fall only to women. We have been doing the work — and we’ll continue to do it. But we’ve also got to call on those not in this room to do better, to both recognize that women’s underrepresentation is a problem and work to address it.

United States Representative (and civil rights leader) John Lewis often refers to making “good trouble” in order to “make our country and make our world a better place.” Women in Belizean politics can and should make good trouble as well, not only by running and winning in the short-term, but in contributing to the long-term institutional change.

In the short-term, here are some strategies for women to navigate the gendered terrain of politics:

  • Gather allies and validators. Unfortunately, women face greater skepticism of their credentials to serve. Respected experts, political leaders, among other allies can publicly endorse your qualifications and preparedness to serve. Allies, including allied organizations of women, can also call out and combat sexism and unfair critiques that women face.
  • Credential yourself in making the case for leadership, and don’t ignore gender — and specifically your gender-informed experiences and perspectives — as one among many of your credentials for public service. By discussing the value-added that you bring to political institutions and the advantages of being a woman (as well as the advantages of diversity among women running/serving), you can make a strong electoral and substantive case for your candidacy. Those advantages include, but are not limited to, empathy, passion, authenticity, and perspective that differs from male counterparts.
  • Create and/or tap support networks for women — financial, psychological, electoral, and personal. Start at convenings like this one, where women come together with a shared interest in advancing women’s political power and shared knowledge and experiences of the hurdles to doing so. Recognize and leverage the power of women when they come together to combat the status quo. Realize the value in creating support structures alternative to parties when parties fail to prioritize women’s inclusion.

These strategies are necessary to be sure that there are more women in political leadership. We need you inside of political institutions, but we also need you to disrupt those institutions so that they are more welcoming to women — and other marginalized groups — in the long-term. Strategies for long-term institutional change include:

  • Championing structural reforms, including altering electoral systems/rules; promoting greater regulation of political parties and mandates for women’s inclusion; and/or regulating the role of money in campaigns, including the informal system of handouts in Belizean politics.
  • Challenging norms and symbols of politics by seeking opportunities to push the boundaries of what we all value in our elected leaders so that women can campaign, win, and serve on their own (diverse) terms and not just the terms set by men and rooted in masculinity. Women leaders act as role models, but men and women must see them — whether in media, history books/curriculum, or in person. Identifying strategies to make women’s leadership visible will ensure that the next generation reimagines what it means to be a political leader. This opens the door not just to women, but to a broader swath of the public by challenging singular models of political leadership.
  • Altering policy agendas and debates. Research and anecdotes show time and again that having women at decision-making tables changes not only what is discussed, but also how issues are discussed and how decisions are made. This is not surprising; we do not live in countries where men and women are treated the same, are afforded same opportunities, are confronted with same challenges, or are affected in same way by public policy decisions. Thus, there is value in collecting and sharing the examples of how women’s unique expertise, perspective, and styles of leadership contribute to politics. Moreover, we should all remember, “If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu.”

In laying out these strategies for change, I hope you will ask yourselves: how can you create a political system in Belize that not only empowers more women, but addresses problems that are too often ignored by those benefitting from the status quo?

As you make positive change, I urge you to remember one more thing: progress is not inevitable. This is evident in the numbers of women running and winning in both Belize and the United States, which have not increased in steady or significant ways. But it is also evident in our recent U.S. election, where a candidate who played to the most traditional stereotypes of masculinity was elected to an office that a woman has yet to hold, more than 200 years after U.S. independence. Our election was an important reminder that despite women’s progress in society — whether in education, business, politics, or other sectors — we cannot afford to be complacent. President Obama often quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. in noting that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I hope and expect that justice to include women’s political empowerment, but I also know that that arc only bends because people are pushing on it. Shifting political power to women takes sustained engagement, work, and persistence — none of which is new to women.

But — very importantly — it’s not all on you. The work to level the playing field and power distribution in politics must be done by men, too. So, I urge you to:

  • Hold those in power accountable and, once in power, don’t forget to use your power to bring others behind you.
  • When parties tell you they are doing all they can, ask them to prove it.
  • When leaders say women just don’t want to run or serve, ask them to prove it and push them to create conditions under which women do see that the benefits of service are greater than the costs.
  • When men sit on the sidelines saying “good for you” or “good luck,” ask them why they are not enraged at the exclusion of women from positions of political power. What are they doing to change the system? How are they utilizing their privileged position as men? What more can they do to open male-dominated systems to women?

The women at this conference are ready to take on this work, and I hope will consider your own candidacies and supporting other women to run and win. But please also hold men (and the systems they maintain power over) accountable as key players in disrupting the status quo that has benefitted them — not you — for so long.

Kelly Dittmar

Written by

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University–Camden & Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers — New Brunswick