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Women, Civility and Media in the 2020 Campaign

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Six. That’s how many women are running for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination in 2020.

Eight. That’s how many women have ran for a major party’s presidential nomination from 1789-2016.

In one election cycle the number of women pursing a major party’s presidential nomination has nearly doubled. That seems newsworthy, but that’s not the main story.

As we consider media and civil discourse, I think it’s worth taking some time to examine how candidates are being covered and the role gender plays in media coverage. Civility is about respect, kindness and fairness. This is not something women candidates are always met with. Decades of research tells us that women candidates are not treated the same as male candidates by the media. Women candidates have historically faced more coverage of their personality and appearance than their male counterparts and less coverage of their qualifications and issue positions.

Recent research does indicate that women have received more equitable coverage in recent legislative races, but the presidency remains a hyper-masculine space. Women still must walk a thin line between coming across as too feminine to lead and too masculine to be likable, and the news media are quick to point out when they may fail to toe that line.

The women running for the 2020 presidential nomination are no exception. Take the likability question. Kirstin Gillibrand announced her presidential exploratory committee and the first question she received was about her likability and the likability of another female candidate, Amy Klobuchar. Elizabeth Warren faced similar questions and news stories speculated she may have the same likability problems as Hillary Clinton.

Amy Klobuchar was seen as likable and described as “Minnesota nice” spurring debate as to whether nice is what the party needed in 2020. Then stories broke that she may not be so nice to her employees sparking doubt that she is likable enough to win.

Male candidates are almost never asked about their likability. Likability is not a weakness in men. I doubt few would argue that Trump is likable, and no one seems to care if Bernie Sanders is likable or not because it’s all about his firm ideological positions.

On the other hand, likability can be an asset in men. Take Beto O’Rourke for example. He became a media star with his charismatic and relatable speaking style in his failed campaign against Ted Cruz. The media was buzzing with speculation about whether this likable guy would run, and when he announced he would, he received mountains of positive coverage. In O’Rourke’s case, his likability is an asset that overshadows his mostly absent policy agenda.

Some may argue that people want a likable candidate and that likability has nothing to do with a candidate’s sex. Yes, likability can help a candidate, but it doesn’t work the same for women as it does men. A woman’s likability is strongly tied to traditional expectations of appropriate femininity, a characteristic that is often in conflict with common notions of strong leadership.

It matters if women’s likability or other personality traits are the focus of their media coverage. If women and not men are being asked about their likability, then it’s sexist. If news media are covering women candidates’ likability and men’s policy or toughness, then it is sexist.

Women don’t just face unfair standards when it comes to likability. Take the issue of sexual harassment in campaigns. Recent news has hammered Kirsten Gillibrand for the poor handling of a sexual harassment allegation within her campaign, despite the fact she has admitted to mistakes. On the other hand, numerous women have accused several top campaign staffers in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign of sexual harassment. In Sanders case an apology and promise to do better was enough to stop most media scrutiny.

If we are to have civility in politics, we need to think about how candidates are covered and what’s being asked of them. The same standards must be applied to both men and women. What media does matters. American voters learn about the candidates by reading or hearing about them from trusted media outlets, and what they read and hear shapes what they think about the candidates. It shapes what they prioritize. Focusing on a candidate’s unlikability can cause voters to doubt their electability and shift their support to someone with more favorable coverage. When women get personality coverage and men get issue coverage it frames women as less qualified and capable.

If women are going to have a real shot at breaking the highest, hardest glass ceiling, then they must be evaluated on the same standards as their male opponents.

Kelly Winfrey is an assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and coordinator of research and outreach at the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.