Biweekly Public Opinion Roundup: 2010 is "The Year of the Woman?"

Women bring something different to the table; a perspective that is distinct from men’s. Both experiences are equally important, and both need to be incorporated in to decision-making and represented in power-circles if we hope to embrace all viewpoints and make progress as a society. Yet advancement for women and for gender equality seems to have stagnated, and considering how far we are from equality, stagnation is tantamount to decline. When it comes to the percentage of women in national legislatures, the United States ranks 90th in the world, with women holding 90 of the 535 (16.8%) of the seats in the 111th US Congress. These numbers did not improve in the latest election.  Recent public opinion research shows that a gender gap persists in perceptions of gender inequality, and sexist messaging not only undermines a female candidate, it significantly reduces her favorability among voters.

Gender Equality

A summer Harris Interactive Poll on gender equality finds that most people believe women still have a long way to go before they are considered truly equal in the United States, but it isn’t a high priority for many. Ninety years after women were given the right to vote, 63% of Americans believe the United States still has much work ahead to achieve gender equality, with a substantial gender gap – 52% of men compared to 74% of women – in agreement with this statement. Over half of men (55%), but less than a third of women (32%) agree that “things are fine the way they are between men and women.” Three quarters of respondents agree that the current state of gender equality is not perfect, but that there are more important issues to resolve first, with no difference between men and women on this statement.

There is a gender gap on several equality issues, such as:

Data from Harris Interactive

Women in Positions of Leadership

Public opinion could seem optimistic in regard to women in public service leadership positions:

  • According to a July CNN/Opinion Research Poll Americans are optimistic about a woman being elected president in the coming 20 years. 81% of Americans believe the chances are excellent or good, up from 62% in 2003. There is a gap among African Americans, however, with 72% agreeing that the chances are excellent or good that a woman will be elected president in the next 20 years, though this percentage is a significant increase from 2003 as well, when 57% of African Americans believed so.
  • A June NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey finds that 46% of respondents are either enthusiastic about or comfortable with the fact that a candidate running for Congress is a woman and 47% assert that it makes no difference to them.
  • On the topic of women and Supreme Court nominations, a poll by CNN/Opinion Research conducted in May shortly before Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings finds that the fact that she is a woman makes 16% of respondents more likely to support her; for 80% of Americans this fact makes no difference.
  • In addition, according to a May CBS poll conducted just prior to Elena Kagan's hearings, 48% of Americans believe it is very or somewhat important that there is another woman on the Supreme Court. This, however, is a downward shift from a year earlier when CBS asked the question in a July 2009 survey. The latter survey took place around the start of the Senate confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, and 66% of Americans believed it was very or somewhat important for there to be another woman on the Supreme Court. Currently, three of the nine justices of the Supreme Court are women.

Sexism, Politics and the 2010 Elections

Sexism is still a hurdle for women, especially those running for office or occupying high profile positions. Sexist remarks, from comments on hair and fashion to sexual innuendos, were just as common in this election as ever. A recent survey by Lake Research Partners shows the damage that even mild sexism can have to a female candidate's favorability ratings, severely holding women back. In an experiment, respondents were given the profiles of two competing hypothetical candidates, one male and one female. When criticisms of the female candidate contain mildly sexist statements, including the terms “ice queen” and “mean girl,” as well as commentary on her appearance, she lost a significant amount of support compared to non-sexist criticisms. Initially the difference between the female and male candidate was +11 in favor of the female candidate; after the sexist comments were introduced the scale shifted to -1 and the female candidate lost her advantage. If the female candidate responds appropriately, however, she can regain support.

The 2010 election was, at least in the beginning, touted as “the year of the woman” with a record 262 women running in primaries for the House, but how did women actually fare after the election? Nancy Pelosi, the first female House Speaker and the highest ranking elected woman in US history, will be stepping down from her leadership position and, as a consequence, the political clout of women at large will shrink. Although there were a record eight (maybe nine) new Republican women elected to the House, only one new Republican woman was elected to the senate, and there were not enough Republican women running to offset the losses suffered by Democratic women in office. Between 9 and 11 incumbent Democratic women lost their races, but they did not lose disproportionately to Democratic men. In addition the percentage of subcommittees chaired by women, currently at 27%, will decline as many Republican women in Congress have less seniority and are not well situated to take on leadership positions. Overall there has been no increase in female lawmakers – the first year in thirty years that the percentage of women in Congress did not increase.  

For a detailed description of how women candidates managed in the 2010 midterms, please see the scorecard at the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics as well as a recent CNN article on the topic.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

Tags: public opinion, gender, Opportunity, Women (all tags)

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