There are currently five women governors nationwide — yes, just five out of 50. However, 2014 could be the year that women governors increase their ranks, with 36 states holding gubernatorial elections this fall. Four incumbent women are up for re-election, and so far 27 women are considered likely to run to become CEO of their states. Could this be a banner year for women governors, just as 2012 was for women in Congress?
For nearly two decades, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation has studied every woman’s race for governor on both sides of the aisle. Based on those findings, here are three key things to watch for as women compete in races from Massachusetts to South Carolina to Texas.
1. The Ethical Pedestal
The Foundation’s research on women running for executive office shows that voters give women candidates an advantage on honesty and ethics. Voters believe women are more innately honest and expect more from them than they do from men. We saw women candidates hold this advantage in gubernatorial research over the past decade.
To distract from what really matters — the policies, priorities, and platforms of each candidate — male opponents often strike early with attacks questioning a woman’s integrity. It’s a well-worn strategy.
We saw this happen in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s race against then-Senator Scott Brown in 2012, when he repeatedly questioned her integrity, and we’re already seeing it in State Senator Wendy Davis’s race against Attorney General Greg Abbott in Texas. Watch for more of this tactic in play as the races progress, particularly in man versus woman candidate races.
2. The Double Bind
For women candidates, words really matter. We so often hear people say they’ll vote for a woman if she’s “qualified,” and 2014 will likely be no different. Do voters ever ask that of men?
For women candidates, saying they are qualified helps voters see them that way. A 2012 nonpartisan poll by Lake Research Partners for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation showed that using the “qualified” label boosts voter perceptions of a woman candidate’s qualifications.
We also know that a woman’s qualifications are linked to her likability. Women candidates must be qualified to do the job and exude a less tangible likability that resonates with voters. This duo of characteristics is a double bind that men do not face. Voters elect unlikeable men all the time — score another one for the old boys’ club. Yet 90 percent of voters polled say it’s important they like a woman in order to vote for her.
The good news is that by touting her accomplishments and boosting the perception of her as qualified, a woman also increases her likability. Watch women like New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin unravel this double bind as the 2014 races heat up.
3. Show Instead of Tell
Because voters are more accustomed to seeing women as part of a deliberative body, such as the legislature, they need more evidence to believe she is prepared to be an executive than they do for a man. Voters are more comfortable with women leaders when they are one of the decision makers, instead of the decision maker. So watch for women candidates demonstrating their qualifications in a way that men don’t necessarily have to. Two women who do this well are Massachusetts Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
For instance, voters surveyed felt more confident in a candidate who had been a state treasurer when they were told that as treasurer she got the state out of debt.
In contrast, men were assumed to be qualified to lead their state if they had a resume that simply listed positions of leadership and service (not their accomplishments in these offices).
Clearing the Bar
Of course, this list is not a comprehensive look at all of the curveballs women candidates will have thrown at them this election cycle. The typical image-based commentary, talk about shoes instead of serious issues, questions about “who’s watching the kids,” or what color lipstick she’s wearing will come up, too.
We know women have to jump through hoops to do well at the polls — be qualified, likable, warm, strong, competent, compassionate, polished but not too pretty — and the list goes on. Time and again, we see women up for the challenge. Since we started this work in 1998, the number of women governors in our history has gone from 16 to 35.
In 2014, we look forward to seeing even more women take center stage.
Read more: The Huffington Post