From Profumo to Boris and now Ken, the politician’s knack of hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons shows no sign of abating. Their political survival then depends on the public’s reaction. So, as women gradually increase their presence in political life, Elizabeth Smith (Furman University, USA) and Ashleigh Powers (University of North Carolina) ask whether people are less forgiving of female misdemeanours.
Two hundred and forty participants (average age 30 years) read two fictional newspaper stories about politicians who were in trouble for some errant behaviour. To gauge their reaction, the participants then evaluated the politicians on things like their competence, likeability and honesty. Different versions of the newspaper stories were used – the sex of the politicians changed, as did their misdemeanour and their account of what they’d done.
Overall, people were no less forgiving of transgressions by female politicians. Female participants, however, were less forgiving of all the politicians than the men. Participants were most forgiving when a politician committed an act that ran counter to gender stereotypes (e.g. a female politician accepting bribes; a male politician having sex with a superior). “In other words”, the authors said, “if Bill Clinton were a woman, he might actually have gotten off easier in public evaluations”.
The participants were convinced least by excuses (e.g. “This egregious error was caused by an oversight by my staff”) and were, in contrast, most forgiving when justifications were given (e.g. “As two consenting adults we feel that this relationship is not improper in any way”).
The authors concluded: “Since women’s willingness to run for office seems to be one of the last great hurdles to full political equality, our findings will hopefully act to encourage women in their political considerations”.
Smith, E.S. and Powers, A.S. (2005). If Bill Clinton were a woman: the effectiveness of male and female politicians’ account strategies following alleged transgressions. Political Psychology, 26, 115-133.