Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author; view more opinion at CNN.
The 2020 presidential election marks the first time more than two women have competed in the Democratic or Republican primaries, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Democratic congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have all thrown their hats in the ring. And Marianne Williamson, a bestselling author and a spiritual counselor to Oprah, is also running.
While this is refreshing to see, an analysis of media coverage published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism finds that the percentage of positive words being used to describe the women is significantly lower than media sentiment about male candidates. But the problem isn’t just the media. Studies suggest women are likely to face extra hurdles to winning over voters, as well – simply because of their gender. In order for a woman to be elected president, a lot of us may need to re-examine some of our subconscious ways of thinking.
Research indicates that voters may unknowingly discriminate against female candidates for president because a woman has never held the position, and therefore a woman won’t appear to be a “fit” for the role. Scholars call this the gender-incongruency hypothesis. For example, studies have shown that female candidates don’t do worse than men when they run for local and state-wide office, but they don’t fare as well when they run for president.
In a 2007 study published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, when students were given identical resumes of candidates who they were told were running for president – a position which, of course, has never been held by a woman – they judged the candidate to have more presidential potential and to have had a better career when the candidate was named Brian than when the person was named Karen. But when students were shown resumes of candidates running for Congress – where women already hold seats – they didn’t judge Brian more positively than Karen.
A 2008 study of likely Ohio voters found similar results. When potential voters were ask