Manne, who has argued that a pervasive patriarchy in America relentlessly punishes women who challenge male dominance, cites a pair of other studies, from 2004 and 2007, as potential evidence of sexist bias in politics. The gist of this research is that women who are described as highly successful in a stereotypically male job, such as financier or aircraft-company executive, tend to be rated as somewhat less likable than comparable men: In one experiment, for instance, average likability scores on a 1-to-9 scale were 6.3 for a woman and 7.3 for a man. (The advantage was reversed not only in female-typed jobs but in ones cued as gender-neutral.)
But whether this research—conducted with groups of a few dozen undergraduate psychology students—sheds light on actual voters’ views of female candidates is an open question. In a 2009 study that approximated a real-world setting much more closely, using a sample of more than 1,100 American adults, the Dartmouth College political scientist Deborah Jordan Brooks found that people who read made-up news stories about a fictional male or female Senate candidate did not penalize women more for gaffes, tears, or displays of anger—and that a female candidate with no prior political experience tended to be viewed more positively than a man with a similar background.
Meanwhile, in real-life congressional elections—since as far back as the 1980s—women who run win as often as men do. Do these women, as some have suggested, need to be better than men to do as well? Testing this proposition is virtually impossible. But some evidence suggests that being female in 21st-century America is not a disadvantage in political races. Jennifer L. Lawless, a professor of government at American University, and Danny Hayes, a professor of political science at George Washington University, carried out a detailed analysis of voter surveys and media coverage from the 2010 midterms and found that “candidate sex does not affect journalists’ coverage of, or voters’ attitudes toward, the women and men running for office.”
Those data, I should note, came from congressional elections; some analysts believe that Americans who have no problem with female legislators may be more hesitant to elect women to executive positions, though the evidence remains inconclusive. “The optimistic story that we’ve been telling for 15 years is not about presidential politics,” Lawless told me in an interview two days after Warren’s withdrawal. “It might be! But we don’t have systematic evidence, because we still have too few women running for president.”
Does Lawless think sexism played a role in either Clinton’s defeat or Warren’s failure? Her conclusion is that we simply don’t know. In 2016, she pointed out, the female candidate was Hillary Clinton, who had unique baggage after decades in the public eye. “It was hard to tell if it was sexism or Clintonism,” Lawless told me. And this year? “Although some very qualified female contenders did not make it to the end of the race,” Lawless said, “neither did some very qualified men.”