The September 2021 Newsletter for the Utah Women & Leadership Project highlights new resources released, editorials, and announcements about women's groups and partnerships.
An Analysis of Utah Media: Women & Politics
As women’s political presence and influence have slowly continued to increase, the way they have been represented in the media has also evolved. Research spanning the past several decades indicates that women politicians continue to be disadvantaged in the way they are covered by the media. From newspapers to primetime television, the way female political candidates are represented is a crucial topic; recent research indicates that women are dissuaded from even entering the political realm due to patterns of gendered media reporting and that “media both produces and reproduces sexism.” Research evaluating media representation of female political candidates spans both the quantity and quality of coverage, including “volume of coverage, candidates’ viability, candidates’ issues, and candidates’ traits.” To date, however, there has been no specific research conducted in Utah on the intersection between media, gender, and politics.
Setting the Stage
The study focused on female political candidates within the State of Utah who have run for the following elected offices: Congress, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Utah Senate, Utah House of Representatives, and Mayor. News articles were analyzed and coded using categories identified by national research on political media coverage to determine trends and patterns within Utah’s media. A limitation of this research is that it did not include a comparative analysis of media focused on Utah men running for elective public office. However, each section does provide a comparison with other studies that have done so. The results presented here are ordered according to the frequency the topic was mentioned: candidate’s background, viability, general tone, mention of gender, leadership traits, masculine versus feminine issues, family life, masculine versus feminine traits, physical appearance, personality traits, sexist comments, and level of government. The brief will conclude with a summary of findings and recommendations for Utah media.
Of the 383 articles identified for analysis, 195 (50.9%) mentioned some aspect of the candidate’s background, such as professional experience and history, credentials, education, degrees held, political experience, or other non-family-related personal history. Nearly all articles included some discussion of a candidate’s political history, including positions held, issues, projects, or policies they had supported, and the length and success of their political involvement. Professional background and accomplishments were also regularly included, as was whether the candidates held a college degree, particularly if the candidate held an advanced degree. The candidate’s religious affiliation was mentioned only when the candidate was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; this affiliation was characterized both positively and negatively, depending on the article’s author.
Viability - Horse Race Coverage
Viability, or “horse race coverage,” was also examined. Viability has long been one of the most prominent elements of campaign coverage, and it centers around whether the candidate can stay in the race, what the candidate’s chances are of winning, and how she or he is faring during the election campaign. It offers a general discourse about the political race, including the media’s attempt to predict the outcome. Of the 383 articles, 148 (38.6%) included some aspect of horse race coverage. Many comments were neutrally stated, giving mere percentages or specific point gaps for the candidates. Others described a candidate’s “ride to election” going “very smoothly” or other candidates being “shoo-ins,” or yet another candidate being “outpaced” by an opponent. Much less frequently, media coverage used more descriptive words, such as a candidate’s being “clobbered” or “knocked off” by another in their “battle” for office.
Negative comments by the media toward women may be attributed to the fact that men have historically constituted the vast majority of political leaders, and, consequently, leadership qualities have been subscribed to men. When women step into political leadership, it does not match the stereotypical view of either a leader or a woman, and the result is women may receive more negative coverage. An example of this double bind is described by a female politician in one of the articles: “When women are placed in a leadership position, we tend to expect her to be tough. However, if she’s too tough she seems ‘witchy.’ But she can’t be too soft, because then she gets labeled as ‘not tough enough for the job.’” This aligns with research that finds “the perceived characteristics of women . . . are at odds with the requirements of political leadership. . . . The consequence is that women leaders inevitably fail on some standard, because they either violate the stereotype of a leader or that of a woman. This can lead to negative evaluations and reporting by journalists if they (consciously or not) adhere to the prescriptive stereotypes."
Mention of Gender
Published research suggests that male candidates are far less likely than female candidates to be referenced by their gender or by “novelty labels” such as “first” or “lone,” because men are accepted as the norm within politics, while women are seen at best as historic figures—or at worse as abnormal. Researchers noted that novelty labeling, whether positive or negative, underscores and accentuates the gender differences in a political race rather than highlighting a candidate’s experiences, leadership, and viewpoints.
Articles were analyzed to determine whether candidates were described in terms of their leadership traits. According to the literature, “leadership traits are those character traits in politicians that are important for voters when they cast their ballot.” Such traits include competence, integrity, empathy, charisma, compassion, leadership, aggressiveness, political skills, vigorousness, communicative skills, and consistency.
Overall, recent research confirms that male politicians receive more media coverage describing their leadership traits, highlighting both traditionally masculine characteristics (e.g., political craftmanship and vigorousness) and feminine ones (e.g., communicative skills and integrity).
Masculine versus Feminine Issues
In the literature, “compassion issues” have been referred to as feminine issues that focus on people-related topics such as poverty, education, healthcare, childcare, the environment, social issues (including LGBTQ issues), and issues related to women’s experiences (e.g., abortion, violence against women/domestic violence, gender quotas). Conversely, masculine issues focus on what are perceived to be “tough issues,” such as foreign policy, foreign affairs, natural resources, armed forces/military, budget & finances, taxes, and the economy. Researchers have reported that coverage of political candidates’ policies and issues correspond to men’s and women’s stereotypical traits, including the ones just mentioned. In addition, studies have shown the issues that the media covers during campaigns change if candidates are all men, as opposed to mixed-gender races.
While it was common for the number of dependents to be disclosed, family life coverage also included feature articles about a candidate’s spouse, emphasizing the unconventionality of a woman/mom/wife in the starring political role and speculating about how family dynamics worked when the mother or grandmother was fulfilling professional duties.
Masculine versus Feminine Traits
Academic researchers have classified traits of political candidates as either feminine (i.e., honest, non-competitive, emotional, weak leader, or compassionate) or masculine (i.e., self-confident, strong leader, unemotional, ambitious, and tough). Of these, some facet of intelligence was most often referenced. Words such as smart, articulate, bright, and intelligent were frequently used and often coupled with the candidates’ advanced degrees and/or accomplishments. Tough was another masculine trait often used to describe these women, though this term was used in both positive as well as negative ways. Being tough was positive when linked with strong leadership ability; however, when used within the context of being aggressive, being tough was portrayed negatively.
The physical appearance of female candidates has long been a topic of discussion. Jeannette Rankin was the first female elected to the US House of Representatives in 1916 and was judged by her appearance before she even had a chance to establish her policy or political ideals. Within our sampling of Utah media, physical appearance was identified in 52 articles (13.6%), with a woman’s clothing, age, and race mentioned most frequently. There were also references to her shoes, hair, makeup, height, weight, physical fitness, physical beauty or attractiveness, and looking tired, stressed, or energized. Unfortunately, the data suggest that the physical appearance of female candidates is still a criterion on which the media chooses to focus. This is relevant because the media’s choice to ignore or elaborate on a candidate’s physical appearance can inform the way voters evaluate a candidate.
Within this study’s context, personality traits were defined as characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Examples include being confident, straightforward, pleasant, aggressive, competent, charismatic, open, and hard-working. Focusing on a female candidate’s style and personal attributes, while not providing comparable assessments of male candidates, diminishes how women are perceived, while ignoring their substance and leadership abilities.
Sexist comments include language that judges people by their gender when their gender does not matter, or that suggests that one sex is superior to the other. Word choices can affect voters’ attitudes toward female candidates. Media coverage of female politicians that uses language focused on subtler forms of sexist language—ambitious, feisty, compassionate, first woman, or work-life balance—reinforces gender stereotypes, and women tend to be seen as either ice queens, grandmas, mothers, or “steel in a velvet glove.” Researchers have found that these types of comments reduce a female candidate’s credibility, respectability, and likeability.
Level of Government
In Utah, it is rare for female politicians to hold either national or statewide office. One article quoted a male politician who said, “Women are even more scarce on Utah’s Capitol Hill than Democrats.” Currently, there are no female members of the 117th Congress. While women currently serve in Utah’s state legislature, they fill less than a quarter of these positions (25 of 104).
Insights and Recommendations
The amount of gender bias and types of media coverage received by female politicians is an important topic, particularly in our current political climate, when voters rely on media as their primary source of political information. This underscores how “disadvantageous reporting by media can hurt the electoral chances of women candidates and threaten the political longevity of sitting women politicians."
The following areas are offered as opportunities to provide more equitable and representational media coverage for Utah’s women politicians:
- Increase the media coverage of female state legislators, thus helping to normalize women holding political office.
- Consider steering away from writing about any candidate’s appearance.
- Be more aware of sexist language in reporting and take active measures to normalize women in leadership, particularly women of color.
- Treat genders equally in terms of focusing on the candidates’ positions, qualifications, and contributions rather than their personal and family lives and non-political backgrounds.
- Highlight female candidates’ leadership traits in a way that acknowledges their leadership capabilities.
- Take thoughtful measures to portray each candidate, woman or man, as an individual, not as a gender.
Women in Utah who run for office will continue to face challenges. Utah’s media are in a unique position to ensure societal and cultural stereotypes are not perpetuated. As a result, the words used to describe female candidates are of paramount importance and should be thoughtfully and intentionally crafted. It is in Utah’s best interest that we prepare and support more women in political leadership positions and provide more equitable and representational media coverage for these women. As noted by Sheryl Allen, a former state legislator from Davis County, “women have a different perspective. And, if we’re going to get good government, we need a diversity of opinion and expertise to make the type of government the public wants and deserves.” Utahns need more women to run and serve in elected posts at all levels of government, and the research is clear that as we do so, we can lift all Utah residents and the state as a whole.
To learn more about Utah Media regarding Women & Politics read the full brief.