The Limits of Gender Bias in Perceptions of Candidates

Written by Timothy S. Rich and Alexandrea Pike-Goff.

Image credit: Work harder for gender equality by European Parliament/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taiwan is notable in the region for its successful efforts towards gender parity for elected offices. The 2016 Legislative Yuan election resulted in women winning 38% of seats, comparable more to democracies in Northern Europe than other East Asian democracies. For example, women comprise only 17.1% of seats in South Korea’s 2016 National Assembly election and 10.2% of Japan’s 2017 House of Representatives election. Taiwan’s progress in this regard has been attributed to multiple factors, including gender quotas at the national level where parties allot half of their party list candidates to females, as well as local level quotas that develop a pool of female candidates with the experience to be competitive for higher offices.

Gender quotas were written into the first 1946 Republic of China Constitution. The Legislative Yuan and political parties have also raised the national gender quota; in 2005, the ratio increased from 10% to 15%. Both the KMT and the DPP have an internal female candidate quota of 25%. Despite the national and lower-level quotas, only 15% of mayors or magistrates are women.

Having Tsai Ing-wen in office has not only normalised women in the government, but it has also increased the number of women the KMT nominates. In 2018, seven out of nine KMT female mayor and magistrate candidates won, including Lu Shiow-yen, the mayor of Taichung; the DPP did not have any female candidates in mayor or county magistrate races. This is a sharp increase from the 2014 local elections when only two female candidates, both from the DPP, won.

While the success of women at all levels of political office in Taiwan should be commended, we ask to what extent the Taiwanese public still views female candidates differently than male counterparts. Quotas and the success of several female candidates must contend with patriarchal conceptions of gender roles and implicit, if not explicit, biases. Moreover, cross-national research commonly finds that gender influences perceptions of suitability for various political offices and other forms of employment. Previous research suggests that the gender of candidates matters, whether in terms of political office or other forms of employment. Empirical works also suggest that identical speeches can be evaluated differently based on the gender of the speaker. In contrast, assumptions of strengths or weaknesses of candidates are commonly based on gender stereotypes and not the experiences or policies of the candidates themselves.

We wanted to see if Taiwanese respondents would reveal biases based on the gender of candidates, but acknowledged several challenges in tackling this issue. First, using actual candidates must contend with confounding factors such as partisan identification. For example, one would naturally assume that DPP supporters would evaluate Tsai Ing-wen more favourably than Han Kuo-yu, regardless of her gender or the gender of the respondents. In addition, in contrast to patterns elsewhere, men have been more supportive than women of the DPP in general and of Tsai Ing-wen in particular, although it is unclear to what extent Tsai has created coattail effects for female legislative candidates. Moving away from presidential races partially resolves some of these concerns, while focusing on a hypothetical candidate allows us to isolate one factor that potentially influences perceptions: experience.

We proposed addressing the issue through an experimental web survey, conducted through PollcracyLab at National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) Election Study Center, to ask about gender and candidates without a partisan or specific candidate mentioned. Five hundred and two respondents were randomly assigned to receive one of two versions of a statement and asked to evaluate the statement on a five-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The versions were:

Version 1:  A man without experience in elected office is unfit to be a legislator

Version 2: A woman without experience in elected office is unfit to be a legislator

This wording builds off of previous research that focused on presidential candidates for the 2016 election, which initially both major parties nominated female candidates before the KMT replaced Hung Hsiu-chiu with Eric Chu. This updated version also avoids priming respondents to consider the only successful female presidential candidate as the baseline for consideration.

The figure below presents the results. Overall, we find that respondents were far more likely to disagree with the statement when framed as a hypothetical female candidate rather than a male one. This would contrast with expectations that the public may place additional expectations on female candidates to be considered competitive. Moreover, similar patterns are seen when separating respondents by gender, by age, or by partisanship. If respondents, especially males, were simply unwilling to admit a gender bias, we would not see such consistent patterns. The results suggest that respondents have a general knowledge that female candidates, despite quotas in local offices, lack the same opportunities as male candidates.

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While it is unclear whether Taiwan will improve upon gender parity in the legislature in 2020, the results suggest that the public does not bias against women who lack political experience. However, it tells us little about whether the public still expects female candidates to conform to expectations on female-related policies or other factors that may negatively impact electoral success. Nor does it shed light on how the public responds how other politicians comment about the roles of female politicians. President Tsai cannot escape the conventional woman stereotype of a loving wife and mother; she and other prominent female leaders face unabashed sexist treatment from both the KMT and DPP members. Billionaire and once 2020 KMT presidential hopeful, Terry Gou criticised Taichung legislator Yang Chiung-ying for being too involved with her family. Han Kuo-yu and his running mate, Simon Chang, have not restrained their sexist comments this election season. Experience is simply one factor in the calculus that shapes perceptions of candidates, but the public does not appear to weight the lack of political experience as determinative of a candidate’s suitability of office.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University. His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics in East Asian democracies.

Alexandrea Pike-Goff is an undergraduate researcher at New York University majoring in Politics and Human Rights, with a focus on East Asia.

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