Media sexism remains a burden for women candidates

By Swanee Hunt, the Eleanor Roosevelt Professor in Public Policy and founding director of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Kerry Healey, the former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

American women hold 12 percent of governor’s seats and make up 17 percent of Congress. If these numbers sound low, that’s because they are: The United States ranks a stunning 85th in the world in women’s parliamentary representation. No matter which side of the aisle prevails in the upcoming mid-term elections, both sides can agree the U.S. needs to draw on 100 percent of its citizens’ talents to meet our huge challenges.

Many factors contribute to the gender gap in political leadership, but a recent study sponsored by the new Name It. Change It. campaign highlights the role of sexism in the media’s treatment of female candidates both to deterring women from running for office and also decreasing their chances of success when they do throw their hats in the ring. Thanks to Lake Research Partners’ groundbreaking findings, for the first time we have hard evidence that the media are holding back political parity. According to Lake, even subtle slurs in newspapers, blogs and on television and radio negatively impact voters’ opinions of a candidate’s trustworthiness and values, making voters less likely to cast a vote for female candidates who have been the subject of media assaults that target their gender or sexuality.

In the past few months, the experiences of Nikki Haley, Betty Sutton, and Elena Kagan have demonstrated how women

of all parties and branches of government get slammed by the same denigrating treatment. Despite differences in backgrounds, careers, and ideologies, as they’ve traveled the road of women in public life, their journeys — a congressional seat, a gubernatorial nomination and the highest bench in the land — have been regrettably similar. True, they all saw some success this year: Kagan was confirmed, Haley won her primary and Sutton is running a competitive re-election campaign. However, their media coverage distracted the public from judging them primarily on their professional qualifications. The consequences are far-reaching: Women who watch other women subjected to degrading treatment are deterred from seeking office. If we’re going to dip deeper into our nation’s talent pool for future leaders, we need to ensure a gender-neutral media.

If Nikki Haley wins, she’ll be the first woman governor of South Carolina. But while Haley pursued and won the Republican nomination — in the state with the fewest women in elected office — two men came forward to claim they had had affairs with her. The media went into overdrive. Blogs about the alleged affairs were peppered with words like slut and whore, and conservative blogger Eric Ericson wrote in Haley’s “defense”: “This violates the very basic laws of nature: Hot women do not have affairs with ugly guys unless those guys are rich.” Following Haley’s nomination, some in the media weren’t asking how she’d govern; they were asking if she was “hotter” than Sarah Palin.

Betty Sutton can probably relate. A second-term Democratic congresswoman from Ohio, she was the youngest woman ever elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. Having held public office since she was 25, Sutton has myriad accomplishments behind her, including her primary authorship of 2009’s “Cash for Clunkers” program. But when The Republican Review urged voters to “take Betty Sutton out of the House and put her back in the kitchen,” the blog went viral.

As Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan waded through her confirmation process, she experienced a piercing media spotlight often focusing on her gender instead of her accomplishments. We have had the privilege of seeing firsthand how Kagan consistently brought an atmosphere of civil public debate and personal respect to her interactions with faculty, students, and alums at Harvard Law School. The American public, however, may not know Kagan was the first female dean of Harvard Law School or that she clerked for Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, but they know she hasn’t married. While the nominee was giving seventeen hours of straightforward testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, we were treated to whispers about her sexual orientation and comments on her appearance.

Every election day, we two travel to the polls to cancel each other’s votes. But we, and millions like us, must stand together and “name it” until media outlets “change it.”

Published in the The Post and Courier Friday, October 29, 2010.

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