I’m Not Sexist, Other Voters Are
Strategic discrimination and the endemic culture of “a woman can’t win”
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During the 2020 caucus cycle, I heard it a lot, the refrain of the cautious Democratic voter. I want to vote for her, but I don’t think she can win. It wasn’t, people reasoned, because they were sexist, but they worried that America was. The calculus never seemed to add up to me. Women win races all the time. In fact, 2020 was a historic year for Republican women winning elected office. As Elizabeth Warren pointed out during a presidential nominating debate in Des Moines, the men on the stage that night had lost 10 elections among them. The only people who hadn’t lost an election were the women.
I heard that refrain again in 2022, this time during the Democratic primary for Senate. Voters were cautious to nominate a woman, Abby Finkenauer, to run against Chuck Grassley when she had lost her re-election bid for Congress. Instead, Democrats nominated Michael Franken, a retired admiral who has never won an election and lost his previous primary run in 2020.
In the eyes of many voters, Finkenauer, who’d won more elections than Franken, was a losing candidate. While Franken, who had never won, was a potential winner.
It’s a local story. But it’s also a national one. When I emailed Regina Bateson, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, I told her that story, and she told me it’s a story she hears all the time, about so many races large and small across the country. And for her, these stories are personal.
In 2017, when Regina Bateson, a former diplomat and academic, ran for office, she heard that logic too. The circular reasoning from voters who liked her and wanted to vote for her but were worried about the sexism that she’d face in a general election. It was a frustrating logic, one that wouldn’t be swayed by truth or actualities. Women did win. They could win.
For example, The Reflective Democracy Campaign found that in 2018 women of color comprised 4 percent of candidates and 5 percent of all winners, white women made up 28 percent of candidates and 29 percent of all winners, men of color were 6 percent of candidates and 7 percent of all winners and white men represented 61 percent of candidates and 60 percent of all winners.
When Bateson lost, she decided to study the infuriating logic of voters, which she termed “strategic discrimination.” Her resulting research offers insight into the sexist logic of electability and a better framework for assessing elected officials.
I spoke with Bateson about how she came to this topic, why people think their neighbors are far worse than they actually are, and how voters can end the sexist circular logic of “I like her, but she can’t win.”
Lyz Lenz: When and how did you come to this topic of study?
Regina Bateson: I ran for Congress in the 2018 election cycle and saw this firsthand. And I experienced some variation of what I would now call strategic discrimination on a near daily basis for over a year of my life.
I was running for office in California. This is not my main area of research, but just out of personal curiosity I had taken one graduate seminar on women in politics back when I was doing my PhD, and I kind of follow the literature and just enjoy reading other people’s work in that subfield.
I knew that women who run for office often face a competence-versus-caring trap, where they’re expected to be seen as caring, otherwise people will see them as too harsh. But then that makes it hard for them to establish their competence and their qualifications. There’s a number of these kind of traps that women fall into commonly in either politics or other leadership positions, even in the workplace. So I was aware of some of those issues and kind of had my antennae up realizing that they would probably be issues once I became a candidate, but I was really surprised by this whole additional dynamic.
My race ultimately ended up being a primary mainly with female candidates, which was very interesting. And so, there were some times where our party delegates would say things like, “Some man, any man, just like some generic off-the-shelf man would have a better chance in the general election than any of you ladies.”
Even though there wasn’t ever really a viable male candidate in the democratic primary in that election cycle there, there was definitely a desire for one. And then even once it got down to really three women, aspects of our identities were picked apart and held against us in this way.
For me, it was the fact that I had multiple young children. And people would constantly say, constantly, in writing, to my face, at campaign events, “I’m concerned that other people won’t vote for you because essentially of your children, because they’ll think that you should be at home with them, because they’ll disapprove of you, because they’ll think that you don’t have enough time or energy to do the job,” some variation of that.
LL: I get that all the time when I go out on reporting trips, “Where are your children?” And I’m always like, “I don’t know, locked in the basement with a box of Goldfish and Capri Suns? They’re with their other parent!” How did you respond?
RB: I would mostly tell jokes, or the thing that the consultants and I settled on at an event is that I would pick something that they clearly shouldn’t be doing at that event, you know? “Oh, at least they’re not scaling your beautiful glass sculpture that’s over there.” And then we settled on the fact that I should just answer the question. Because part of what I was trying to do or part of my strategy the whole time I was a candidate was just to be really transparent and straightforward with people. So the strategy was basically answer the question in a direct, short way. Like, “Oh, in fact, they’re with my parents, we’re so lucky to have so much support from them. And aren’t you glad that they’re not knocking over all your wine bottles or something.” Make a joke. And then transition back to the event that you’re at and back the reason why you’re there.
LL: What other questions did you get?
RB: Another question was, “Okay, you’re in California, Congress is in Washington, DC. How could you possibly travel back and forth so much to literally be in Congress and have all these children?” Or variations of that. Like, “How could you actually have the time to be a candidate? How could you actually have the time to be in office? How could you actually have the time to do the job?”
Moral disapproval was another one. So that was just kind of the direct, straight-up criticism you might expect, especially in a socially conservative area. Like, “I just think it’s wrong that you’re not home with your children. Like, don’t you love them, don’t you care about them?” So I would get that sometimes, including from Democrats.
And then there was the other one: “People won’t vote for you.”
I tried a lot of different things. And in fact, at one point, I mean, we actually hired a gender consultant for a short engagement to kind of like watch the video of how much this was happening, all four of those issues. Right? Just how much I was getting criticism and/or distraction.
The consultant, she’s the one who watched these videos and helped me work through this and then come up with stock answers for them. The stock answers were effective for the other questions, but not for the “people won’t vote for you” objection.
And so, there were some times where our party delegates would say things like, “Some man, any man, just like some generic off-the-shelf man would have a better chance in the general election than any of you ladies.”
LL: What did you try?
I tried this strategy of listing off all these Republican women that win in more conservative districts with multiple young children. It completely did not work. People would just look at me blankly.
So then I tried facts. One of my main takeaways from being a candidate was that facts don’t matter.
I’m a very fact-oriented person, an academic, and my job is being engaged in the world of facts and needing to support arguments with evidence. But the facts about women winning didn’t work either.
I just consistently got back objections. People would argue, “Well, that’s other places. And I know people here, and I’m sure people here wouldn’t vote for a woman.” Just a very high level of confidence in their beliefs about other people’s beliefs.
I felt that I never actually really came up with a very successful way of dealing with it during my campaign.
LL: Something that jumped out at me in your research was that people overestimate how racist and sexist other people truly are.
RB: Yes. Massively. You do see this in other fields and professions and aspects of society, especially when there have been patterns of discrimination in the past, people have a tendency to hold on to their kind of knowledge from the past about how others think and how others behave.
And it almost seems like people are updating their own preferences and their own views more quickly than they’re able to update their beliefs about what other people think. In the paper, I quoted some psychologists and other research on how people get stuck in the prejudices of the past and perpetuate them because they believe that they’re still true. Even if other people’s views have actually changed.
It’s our beliefs about other people’s beliefs that hold us back sometimes.
LL: The other thing that this logic implies is this idea that a Democratic candidate has to appeal to Republicans. Which seems, at its core, a waste of time.
RB: Yeah. And so that’s where, I mean, again, what the research tells us is that partisanship trumps everything.
When it really comes down to it in a general election, rather than gender, rather than other aspects of someone’s identity, the thing that matters in a general election is, is there an R or is there a D behind their name.
Often this belief that the person that needs to be appealed to is the person that’s going to sway the outcome of an election is this mythical white person out there — this mythical white-guy voter, who everyone has to pander to.
I will say that in my own race, there were Democratic women who had concerns about what Republican women would think also, right? But essentially, we somehow had to appeal to this mythical person in order to win the election.
I think it’s really interesting, something else that I kind of want to write as a follow-up paper but haven’t gotten to yet, is to look historically at candidates and look at how the issue of electability is discussed for the different parties.
If you go back to the early 2000s, if you go back to the 1990s, there was certainly a discussion of electability on both sides in primaries from time to time. And the thing that I think is interesting is that when there’s a discussion about electability and the candidate is a white man, a straight white man, the discussion of electability usually seems to center around their issue positions. So their actual stances on issues, maybe their experience or lack thereof, scandals they might be tied to.
So you definitely saw this with Bill Clinton in the media coverage, from when he first was running for president, he was sometimes criticized as unelectable at the stage of the primary because, oh, he’s got all these scandals attached to him, he’s young, he’s inexperienced, and other characteristics of somebody’s personality.
But the reasons why somebody is deemed unelectable or why they’re made to defend their electability, I think that they seem to vary by race and gender.
So that someone who’s a person of color, or who’s a woman, or who’s some kind of other historically marginalized group, they’re going to be asked to defend their electability on the basis of their identity. Whereas, somebody who’s a white man might be asked to defend their electability because of things they’ve done or issue positions they’ve taken or their lack of qualification.
Your assumptions about how intolerant others are, are probably wrong. Even if you’re a person who values equity, those incorrect views about others could be leading you to make decisions that hold people back who are from historically excluded groups.
LL: I wonder how much the media environment contributes to this?
RB: There is this other paper that I just saw recently that kind of builds on my paper. The concern of that research was actually about media framing and polling and polling questions.
The question is always asked over and over and over again, “Do you think that your neighbors, or do you think that other people would vote for this type of candidate?” In this case, the researchers tried to look at the way those questions were phrased, and then they are ultimately making the argument that is part of what drives this story, is that repeatedly asking people, but do you think the country’s ready for a woman president, or fill in the blank, other group president, that those types of questions create the impression that the country’s not ready for it, or that some significant percentage of people are going to disagree with that statement.
And it frames the conversation in a particular way. Nobody’s ever going to ask the question “Do you think America’s ready for a white male president?”
Because it’s not even a conversation that happens. Whereas, oh, heaven forbid that a Black woman runs for president, then there’s going to be tons of polling on this question. Right? And there’s going to be people’s phones ringing off the hook across the country getting asked, but is America ready for a Black woman president? So that’s kind of like the angle of this other paper, is that the particular thing they were exploring was the media framing and the way that polling questions are even asked.
LL: How do we get out of this?
RB: The thing I found very difficult about it in real time was that if you don’t have a name for something, it’s very hard to diagnose the problem and very hard to respond to it and even to talk about it.
This is systemic discrimination because it’s a systematic problem. It’s not just one race or one little segment of the Democratic party somewhere, like one county party chair who acts this way.
And I think that candidates can educate people a little bit and say, “Hey, this is actually a systematic problem. There is in fact a name for it. Let’s try not to do this. Let’s try to be a little more self-aware and check some of those biases or tendencies that we might not even realize we have.”
This is often the way that other types of bias can be dealt with, as everybody has their own implicit biases, but we can make ourselves more aware of them and kind of have that extra check when we’re making decisions.
I do think that bringing an immense amount of wealth or power to counteract this is a strategy some individuals use and are able to use that brings its own other problems, especially for all the concerns about representation in class. But it is a strategy, right? It’s a strategy that’s out there. You see this sometimes, or sometimes being a little bit more conscious about the facts.
I think that it is a different form of gatekeeping because you need access to really wealthy and powerful people to overcome this, which is not really a solution. But it is a strategy.
LL: This is something I think about a lot living in Iowa.
RB: I would just say not to be too hard on middle America. I mean, you actually see this happen all over the country. Like, you saw this over and over again in California, it’s alive and well.
And I think that goes back to the unfoundedness of these beliefs. Your assumptions about how intolerant others are, are probably wrong. Even if you’re a person who values equity, those incorrect views about others could be leading you to make decisions that hold people back who are from historically excluded groups. I would encourage people just to be more open-minded about what their friends, their neighbors, their relatives, their other voters in their community are willing to do and who they’re willing to support. And instead of worrying so much about how other people are going to react to a decision that’s made, think about what you can do to support and promote your chosen candidate or the best person for the job, and how you can help them get themselves out there, communicate with those people. And the reception might be friendlier than you think it’s going to be.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Once again here is a link to Bateson’s research. In that paper, she cites the work of a lot of other researchers who point out that most people overestimate the prejudices of others. In psychology, this is called “pluralistic ignorance.”
Back in 2020, after Finkenauer lost her race for congress, I wrote about which types of womanhood are rewarded, and which are not. It’s actually a weirdly prescient piece given that women in America have seen a huge reversal of their rights.
Also, Ms magazine has this article that cites Bateson’s research and others on electability.