The Road to the Highest Office in the Land
Though many have tried, no female has ever held the office of president in the United States. A candidate’s qualifications and ability to run a successful campaign are crucial to achieving this goal. While entry into the field is open, women face challenges unlike males who have campaigned for the same position. Specifically, women face barriers within media coverage which plays a large role within campaigning. Many voters will learn information about candidates through the lenses of news sources which may portray candidates a certain way based on existing biases. It is common for voters to rely on the mass media to form their opinions when deciding the perceived leadership potential for those running for office.
It has been found that campaign reporting varies substantially based on the gender of the candidate and can act as a “political glass ceiling” to obtaining office. Women face challenges in the presentation of self, unlike male candidates. Media coverage of female candidates is more likely to focus on wardrobe, hairstyles, femininity, and family relationships compared to political experience or capability . The New York Times attributes their coverage of candidate's style as part of the political theatre and as a tool of messaging. In reference to Kamala Harris’ style coverage, The Times stated, “to ignore what that nominee wears precisely because she is a woman...is to fail to give her the credit she deserves for using every tool available to her to influence and shape opinion, the more effectively to further the executive agenda” .
However, it is also proven that articles about men and dress usually generate a lot less attention than pieces about women and dress. This may be attributed to the larger variety of female clothing and the greater opportunity for analysis [ibid]. Several headlines from prominent news sources clearly demonstrate this shift of focus from policy to fashion (see figure). While some of these articles may also incorporate policy, fashion remains a key element in grabbing the reader’s attention and is given some level of analysis within each.
Additionally, within this coverage, a candidate’s private life is increasingly being focused on and how it impacts their electability. One study found that there is a higher level of the perception of electability surrounding male candidates, specifically for president, versus female candidates. This is due to a perception that masculine duties are more important and male candidates are more competent to complete said tasks. It is also due to the fact that male candidates with personal problems are also perceived as more electable than female candidates with personal problems . All of these challenges disadvantage women who chose to run for office and impact their ability to win their race.
1. Palmer, Simon. Breaking the Political Glass Ceiling: Women and Congressional Elections. Breaking the PoliticalGlass Ceiling. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2008.
2. Vanessa Friedman, "Why We Cover What Politicians Wear," The New York Times, August 17, 2020, accessed December 01, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/17/style/why-we-cover-what-politicians-wear.html)
3. Ogletree, Shirley Matile, Mary C. Coffee, and Shyla A. May. "Perceptions of female/male presidential candidates: Familial and personal situations." Psychology of Women Quarterly 16, no. 2 (1992): 201-208.
Figure 1. Skrobola, Mark. Southern Lawn of the White House. December 15, 2012.