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Sexist coverage of Liz Kendall and female politicians is insidious and demeaning

How much do you reckon Jeremy Corbyn weighs? How does he measure up if you compare his looks to Prince William’s? How stylish would you say Andy Burnham is? And, if you had to guess, what kind of product would you say he uses in his hair?

The answers to these questions do nothing to help us decide who would make a better leader of the Labour party. But they do influence how voters perceive candidates.

The Mail on Sunday’s profile of leadership candidate Liz Kendall describes her as a “slinky brunette” and a “power-dressing Blairite” with a “lithe figure” who “remains New Labour to the tips of her stilettos”. The paper’s political editor, Simon Walters, asked if she wants to “get married and have kids”, quizzed her about her fitness routine and twice compared Kendall to Kate Middleton. At one point, Walters speculates that “she looks the same weight as the Duchess – about 8st”; later, he disingenuously asks her to discuss “the cruel comments about being a ‘childless spinster’”, neither telling readers who made those “cruel comments” in the first place, or where.

It isn’t the first time in the leadership campaign that the media has treated male and female candidates differently. After MP Helen Goodman wrote in the Huffington Post that she was backing Yvette Cooper for leadership because Cooper was a fellow parent, there was even more debate about whether or not a prospective leader needs to be a mother. It goes without saying that the parental status of the male candidates, Burnham and Corbyn, didn’t figure in the discussion. In fact, I’d wager most voters could tell you immediately whether or not Cooper and Kendall are parents, with all the attendant stereotypes on both sides, but probably wouldn’t be able to answer the same question for Burnham and Corbyn. Nor should they, since it is irrelevant to the position for which these politicians are standing.

Sexism in media coverage is nothing new, but it is still alarming that it occurs. In fact, the comparison to the Duchess of Cambridge isn’t new either; last year, in the Mail’s routine take on the cabinet reshuffle, its reporters described the newly promoted female MPs as “Cameron’s cuties” and compared both education secretary Nicky Morgan and junior minister Penny Mordaunt to the duchess in their fashion choices. There is something interesting about the fact that female politicians, particularly as they near positions of power, are so frequently compared to Kate Middleton in the UK press. Could it be an attempt to neutralise them by pushing them into the only territory the media allows Kate to occupy – where she is judged on her looks and femininity without ever allowing us to hear much about what she says or thinks?

In any case, sexist media coverage has a real impact. A 2010 US study, commissioned by a non-partisan coalition of women’s groups, asked 800 likely voters to listen to descriptions of two hypothetical congressional candidates, Dan Jones and Jane Smith. Half of the voters then heard a sample back-and-forth debate about the candidates, which included sexist descriptions such as “mean girl” and “ice queen” and “prostitute” to talk about the female candidate. The other half heard a similar discussion without the labels. The findings of the study were stark; when sexist language was included, Jane Smith lost twice the support compared to the discussion that focused solely on her policies. Her initial support rating was 43%, which fell to 33% after policy based attacks, compared to 21% after sexist slurs.

The study also found that sexist language undermines the public perception of the female politician, prompting voters to see her as less empathetic, effective and trustworthy.

A follow-up study in 2013 by US organisation Name It Change It presented 1,500 likely voters with the media profiles of two fictional political candidates, one male and one female. Voters were divided into four groups: one quarter heard no reference to the female candidate’s appearance, while the other three groups were presented with either neutral, positive or negative descriptions of how she looked. The study itself used real quotes taken from media coverage of female candidates in 2012 elections. The conclusion? “When media coverage focuses on a woman’s appearance, she pays a price in the horse race, in her favourability, in her likelihood to be seen as possessing positive traits, and in how likely voters are to vote for her.” Importantly, all references to appearance, even apparently positive coverage that seems to praise a female politician’s looks, still result in a detrimental impact on her candidacy – a fact especially worth remembering when a journalist comments on the appearance of a woman in power and disguises it as a compliment.

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The truth is that sexist media coverage of female politicians really does matter – it is insidious and demeaning. It damages voters’ perceptions and makes women less likely to be elected.


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