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Women face gender bias even when running against another woman, report shows

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WASHINGTON — A record number of women were elected to the 117th Congress in 2020.

This year's midterm elections indicate a record level of women are running once again, with nearly 100 running for the Senate and more than 500 running for the House, according to a USA TODAY analysis.

Yet the gendered obstacles women faced in the past have not disappeared despite the progress, new research shows.

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The Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization that advocates for female representation in politics, released a report Tuesday titled "Shared Hurdles: How Political Races Change When Two Women Compete" that analyzed gender dynamics in hypothetical races between women.

Most notably, the research showed women still face gender bias as they run for office even when men aren't in the race. The report also found voters no longer see women on the campaign trail as a novelty.

“Women have made remarkable progress at winning races for political office at every level, since I started on my mission to elect women more than 23 years ago," said Barbara Lee, president and founder of the foundation that carries her name. "It’s exciting that it is now the norm for women to run against each other, whether it’s for city council or the U.S. presidency.”

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The report surveyed 2,000 likely midterm voters nationwide between October and November 2021, and oversampled Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Indigenous voters.

A woman running for office is no longer groundbreaking

Participants surveyed said it is not notable for a woman, irrespective of party, to run for office.

This is a shift from a 2017 report the Barbara Lee Family Foundation released that showed voters viewed women as outsider candidates.

In the five years between the reports, Kamala Harris became the nation's first female vice president after becoming the first Black female senator from California.

At least six women ran for president during the 2020 election season, including Harris. Nancy Pelosi won her second bid for House speaker in 2019, after the 2018 midterms set a then-record 128 women elected to Congress. And more recently, Michelle Wu became the first woman and first Asian American elected as Boston's mayor last November.

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Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, said because of the breakthroughs they have made both in Congress and in states, women in politics are more visible and routine to voters.

"When you also look at the next generation and maybe younger voters who are more recent voters, they may not remember a time where there were not more women running for office and being elected to office," Hunter said.

Women running against each other face likability and qualification test

In past research, voters assumed men were qualified for office while women had to prove their qualifications. Other previous research showed that voters see women as either likeable or qualified but not both.

The "Shared Hurdles" report found when women are in races against one another, they still have to deal with a double bind of being likeable and seen as qualified by voters –even though men are not on the ballot.

Nadia Brown, a political scientist at Georgetown University, said the results from the report confirm gender stereotypes that women have faced for decades.

"The research shows that sexism is still the gorilla in the room. It's not leaving. And it doesn't diminish because men aren't there," Brown said. "What it actually shows is how deeply baked into our political system that sexism actually is. If we were fish, sexism is the water that we're swimming in."

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Voters were also less interested in a woman's personal experiences and were more interested in how her professional experiences relate to how she will govern and help voters.

"They, (the candidates), definitely need to involve themselves with the individuals who are in the community so that they can see what each individual community needs as well for the entire state," said a Democratic-leaning man the group surveyed.

Participants found women to be less experienced on the economy. The report suggested female candidates release an economic plan early in their campaign to mitigate this bias. Voters were also more likely to penalize women who gave negative rebuttals in a two-woman race, hurting women's ability to be likeable.

Brown said for women who may be outside of white heteronormative standards, they have to find another narrative to explain themselves to the public.

"Take for example, (Democratic Senate candidate) Val Demings running in Florida. She is playing up a lot of her law enforcement background because Black women are seen as being soft on crime," Brown said. "She's strategically playing up this counter narrative."

Additionally, women politicians have long-faced harsher critiques of their appearances compared to men.

In the focus groups that were surveyed, participants immediately judged women's appearances, going so far as to respond negatively to women who crossed their arms.

Even photos of a slightly disheveled female politician made voters respond more negatively.

"When we talk about likability and appearance, I compare it to walking a tightrope because voters want women to dress well, but not too fancy and not too nice," Hunter said.

Hunter notes Harrisand Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar wear a variation of the same outfit for the most part. "Women really have to find what works for them," she said.

Voters of color, Democrats, Gen Z more likely to support women candidates

About half of the participants surveyed said it was important to have more women in office. A fifth of voters said it wasn't important, and 3-in-10 said they were neutral.

Black, Latino, AAPI and Indigenous voters were more likely to believe it's important to have more elected women, along with Democrats, younger voters and college-educated women.

Independents, however, were less likely to care about whether a woman is in office.

The report also showed that a likely indicator that a voter will support a female candidate is the belief that men and women lead differently. About half of the voters said men and women are different, and 45% said they are not different.

Hunter said more women running for office is progress in spite of the gender bias they still face.

"The more women that run for office and the more women who are elected to office breaks down what we call in our other research an imagination barrier," Hunter said. "When people see it, they can picture it."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: When women run against each other, gender bias persists