Kennedy's Seat: Will Women Vote for a Woman?

05/25/2011 02:50 pm ET
  • Nancy Hopkins Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Will women shake their biases against other women when they go to the polls on December 8 to choose the Democratic candidate for Massachusetts senator? If Martha Coakley doesn't win in a landslide, we can be certain that they didn't.

Coakely is a highly popular elected Attorney General, formerly DA, and holds the views of a typical Massachusetts Democrat such as our iconic late-Senator Kennedy. She is pro-choice, anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-public option in health care reform, pro-wind power for energy, pro-pay equity for women, pro-PLA for union workers. She's tough but gracious, funny yet serious. There's not a whiff of personal scandal about her.

Women are 51% of the voting public. Thus there can be only two reasons why women are so egregiously under-represented in the US Senate (17% women) and why Massachusetts has never had a female US senator in its history: Either women haven't run for office so it was impossible to elect them, or women ran but not enough women voted for them to get them elected. In politics generally, evidence supports both statements.

Why don't women support women? One reason is unconscious gender bias: women, like men, don't see women as having leadership potential.

Psychologists have long understood the strange fact of unconscious gender bias from studies that show that both men and women slightly undervalue otherwise identical work if they think it was done by a woman. In the last two years they have extended this research to analyze why women, like men, penalize successful women and have difficulty accepting them as leaders. Regardless of the reasons, the reality of the phenomenon persists today.

Once you get over your shock that women (like men) discriminate against women you realize that, in fact, this result makes sense. No one escapes the biases of their culture. As long as women remain second-class citizens, women as well as men will hold them in lower esteem. This low esteem can take surprising forms, and it's a hard thing to fix because it's entirely unconscious and often invisible. It exists even though people's intentions are good: People are sincerely meritocratic in their beliefs, but your beliefs don't inoculate you from undervaluing women and overvaluing men.

Here's an example I've seen repeatedly among Massachusetts women voters when talking about Coakley. "I'm not going to vote for her just because she's a woman."

Well of course you don't vote for someone just because she's a woman. If you're a Republican you're not likely to vote for a Democrat. If the candidate holds a view you find abhorrent, of course you won't vote for her. If she isn't the best candidate (or at least the equal of any other candidate) you won't vote for her. But those aren't the problems here. These are Democrats talking about Martha Coakley in a race where she is arguably the best candidate and certainly the equal of any other candidate, and where all the candidates hold similar views.

So why would a Democratic woman voter even raise the issue that Coakley happens to be a woman, particularly as a reason not to vote for her? You wouldn't hear someone say, "I'm not going to vote for Mr. Male Candidate just because he's a man."

What I've come to realize is that women who say, "I won't vote for her just because she's a woman", are really saying, "I won't vote for her precisely because she's a woman." These women will almost always succeed in finding a male candidate whom they can convince themselves is "better." And they'll tell you how much they support women - just not in this race. For these female voters, unconscious bias is determining how they vote. We will never achieve a representative democracy until women - along with men - overcome the gender biases they have demonstrated in job recruiting, resume evaluation, academic peer review, service evaluation - and voting.

And undervaluing women is only one reason women do not vote for superior women candidates who share their political views.

At a dinner party a few weeks ago I was seated next to a woman whose husband is a high-ranking judge. I named another judge I know and she replied, "Oh, my husband would love to have his job, but of course to get that job today you have to be a woman or a minority. We support diversity, of course," she went on. "But it isn't really fair, is it?"

Not only is her belief that women have an unfair advantage demonstrably false (how much data would you like to see?), but it yanked the cover off women who pay lip service to gender equality. These women see highly successful, ambitious women as competition for the jobs their husbands and sons deserve. No wonder they don't vote for women!

As for young women, most believe gender inequality is a thing of the past. The fact that only 17 of 100 US Senators are women, or that there has never been a woman in the White House is so embedded in the air they breathe that they don't see it as odd, disgraceful, and even un-American. They just plain don't see it. Or if they do, they believe it has nothing to do with their own generation.

So between men, a hefty percent of whom say they would never vote for a woman for high office, older women who view women politicians as competition, young women who are altogether ignorant of this issue, and women and men who undervalue women without knowing it (perhaps all of us), it's no surprise that America ranks about 70th in the world in women's representation in its federal government. Some countries, recognizing the problem, have laws requiring equality in gender representation among public officials.

An important goal of voters should be to achieve gender parity in the US Senate by 2020 - the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage. Martha Coakley's career choices and actions, and her recent principled leadership over the abortion issue in health care show why we must have more women in government. If there were no such thing as gender bias, women and men in Massachusetts would be saying "I'm going to vote for Coakley because she is a woman, as well as a great candidate."

If women can't elect Coakley in Massachusetts, its time to stop and face the fact that women will never achieve equality until they overcome their own prejudices against one another.