Skip to Content

Research News at Vanderbilt

Sexism rules in the ballot booth unless voters have more information

Nov. 9, 2015, 11:21 AM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »


Share this on Facebook Why our subconscious mind has a hard time seeing women as leaders/CEOs and how to change that
Share this on Facebook Research: The test that sees what our subconscious really thinks about a woman president

Female candidates have to be more qualified than their male opponents to prevail in an election because many people don’t see women as leaders, according to research that reveals hidden bias that can emerge in the voting booth.

“My study yielded an intriguing finding,” said Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “In following instructions to sort images rapidly, the mind often balked at accepting a woman as a leader.

“The average person found it easier to pair words like ‘president’ and ‘executive’ with male names and pictures and words like ‘assistant’ and ‘aide’ with female names.”

Measuring subconscious biases

Mo used the Implicit Association Test – or IAT. The test measures how people feel deep in their subconscious about issues including race, age and sex.

“The IAT is an experimental method designed to measure the strengths of associations linking social categories, like blacks versus whites, to evaluative anchors, like good versus bad,” Mo said. “So I tailored the measures to pick up sexism with respect to political leadership and looked at whether it affected voter choice.”

Cecilia Mo

Mo surveyed 407 study participants in Florida, which was chosen because at the time the data was collected, roughly the same percentage of women held elective office in the state (23 percent) as women held elective office in the nation overall (24 percent).

Once she had the test subjects’ biases in hand, Mo asked them how they would vote in two-person races in various scenarios.

“The more difficulty a person had in classifying a woman as a leader, the less likely the person was to vote for a woman,” Mo said. “Even when I consider only those who explicitly say that they would support a female candidate, I found that if they have difficulty associating women with leadership attributes, they are less likely to vote for a woman in a noticeable way.”

Female role models

The results weren’t all bad for women candidates, however.

“People are at this level because they haven’t seen a lot of female leaders,” Mo said. “What’s amazing is that many individuals, when they were given information about qualification differences, did choose the woman.

“People can overcome these unconscious tendencies to see only males as leaders.”

Leveling the playing field

Elections can be made more equitable by providing voters with more opportunities to learn about candidates, Mo said. Ballots with information beyond name and party affiliation, debates and other education efforts can help override the role that gender plays in an election.

Additionally, people are more likely to override their unconscious biases if they are aware that they have them.

Mo’s paper, “The Consequences of Explicit and Implicit Gender Attitudes and Candidate Quality in the Calculations of Voters,” is published in the June issue of Political Behavior.

Media contact:
Amy Wolf, (615) 294-4021 (cell)

  • Greg Seib

    Perhaps the issue is not with providing the electorate with more information at the Ballot box (which they won’t use anyway), but to recognize that our country was not founded as a Democracy (a misconception commonly perpetuated in academia) but as a Representative Republic where the average citizen was not tasked with the election of their political leaders. Most of the voters are only pulling a lever based on the R or D next to the candidate’s name and base their vote on little more (except for the occasional corpse that votes or the enslaved class of people who vote for their subsistence). The removal of representation in the Senate for the States has further exacerbated this issue. Why not focus on these issues rather than this constant victimization of groups of people. Focus on the individual, not on their gender, race, age, or other common groups that the media and the left like to bundle people into to make generalizations.

  • Tom Keeling

    Why are no people of color, male or female, shown in the “choices” offered?

    • Pennie Neveu

      That would introduce another variable – one worth studying, to be sure. But to introduce it without establishing gender impact would muddle the results.

  • mjnicholcar

    I have another hypothesis based upon your observation that “the mind balked at accepting a woman as a leader” when shown a series of photographs as above. Put up a series of photographs of young men and women and ask who looks like a professional basketball player or professional golfer. See if the mind balks at certain types (race or gender).

    Hint: the mind balks at choosing the less likely based upon observance of the real world, not the idealized one. The problem at today’s institutions of “higher learning” is that brainwashing and propagandizing is common place in order to promulgate a particular political/social agenda. This is in opposition to actual learning.

    Here are some questions which are legitimate from a purely scientific approach, but undoubtedly you will interpret as sexist: what percentage of women leaders would you want to see in the world? What percentage of women leaders are expected in the world? What are those expectations based upon? What are your desires based upon?

    You see, until you can properly frame these issues, you cannot begin to understand all of the hidden biases that undergird your premise, which I would no doubt think would be framed something like this:
    Things should be fair. Things should be equal.

    So I ask you, are things fair? Are things equal? Are men and women the same? Are they viewed the same? Have they been historically? Why or why not?

    Until you look much deeper into these areas, you cannot possibly begin to teach, let alone learn. I say this because your post above has an agenda. And I am not arguing either in it’s favor or against, but merely pointing out your method. But in an institution of higher learning shouldn’t the agenda at least be scientifically validated and acknowledged? It is political science (emphasis) after all, isn’t it?