Election coverage of women: more on personality, less on issues

Study shows that despite similar merits, women and men are portrayed differently.

Women face many barriers to elective office. They have a harder time than men raising money and, in general, a harder time being taken seriously.

That creates a "pipeline" problem - that is, with fewer women entering politics at lower levels, there are fewer available to run for the more senior executive-branch positions, such as attorney general, governor, and ultimately president of the United States.

Now, a new study, released today, documents empirically another factor that may lie behind women's difficulty in being elected to executive-branch positions: the way they are covered in the media.

According to the study, women candidates for executive office receive on average less newspaper coverage of their positions on issues and more on personal characteristics than do male candidates. "Personal characteristics" include age, marital status, children, personality, appearance, and qualifications.

Where do women stand?

In addition, journalists tend to provide less information about women candidates' positions on issues than about men's positions.

"We wanted to know, what are the things that happen in coverage that enhance or diminish women's authority as leaders," says Marie Wilson, president of the Women's Leadership Fund, a group that helps women become leaders and sponsor of the study. "We knew that the media tended to report more about women's personal characteristics, but what surprised me was that newspapers were reporting less of the backup and evidence for women's issue positions."

The study examined newspaper coverage of six races for executive positions in 1998 - five governor's races and one for state attorney general, all with a woman candidate.

In the 311 newspaper stories analyzed, 17 percent of the paragraphs focused on the personal characteristics of female candidates versus 12 percent of those on male candidates.

In addition, 31 percent of all paragraphs highlighted issue positions of male candidates, compared with 27 percent for female candidates.

No firm conclusions can be drawn from the WLF study about how newspaper coverage ultimately affects voter behavior. But, the report says, "Newspaper coverage in this study suggests that male candidates were more prepared and qualified for the governor's mansion than were their female opponents." And that, in turn, "may hinder women's opportunity to lead."

Dole's media factor

As for Elizabeth Dole's just-concluded campaign for president, analysts were reluctant to blame media coverage for her failed effort.

Still, Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, notes that there was one question she faced a lot more than some of the male candidates that could have undermined her: "Aren't you really running for vice president?"

Women's advantages

Overall, women do retain some advantages over men as candidates, according to polling data. Voters say women candidates "share their values" more than men candidates, have better ideas, and are more tolerant.

Viewed over the long haul, women have made steady progress in elective politics. About 22 percent of state legislators are women, as are 13 percent of the US House of Representatives, and 9 percent of the US Senate.

The state executive branches have been the toughest to break into - only three out of 50 governors are women. And, of course, the US has yet to elect a woman president or vice president.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.