Race to the top: using experiments to understand gender bias against female politicians

This project investigates how Australians internalised biases structures attitudes towards female politicians.

Joan Kirner AC (1938-2015)
Joan Kirner AC (1938-2015). Photographed in 2013, Kirner was Australia's third female head of government and second female premier, Victoria's first female premier (1990-1992) and 42nd Premier of Victoria. CC BY-SA 4.0.


Although women account for half of the Australian population, women’s political representation is low. Gender balance in political representation is an important goal of governments yet today in Australia only 32% of all parliamentary and 29% of the House of Representative seats are held by women (Parliament of Australia, 2017). While political scientists have investigated political attitudes of female politicians, less is known how internalised gender biases structure voters’ attitudes towards female politicians. This form of discrimination is damaging yet difficult to measure as individuals may be unaware of their internalised bias.


To redress this methodological challenge, this study will apply experimental methods of randomly assigning respondents to a vignette that manipulates the politician’s gender, we will address the research question: do Australians perceive female politicians as less competent and capable in their jobs and, if so, what are the mechanisms through which this discriminatory bias is exhibited? Ultimately, this experimental survey design will allow us to measure gendered bias in citizens' attitudes towards female politicians.


Carson, Andrea, Ruppanner, Leah and Lewis, Jenny. “Race to the top: using experiments to understand gender bias towards female politicians,” in Australian Journal of Political Science Volume 54, 2019 - Issue 4 (Online) 28 May 2019, pp. 439-455.


Gender balance in political representation is an important goal of governments. In this paper, we ask: Do voters judge female politicians less favourably than male politicians, when given an otherwise identical set of information about their backgrounds? We employ an innovative online experiment (N = 1933) to measure Australians’ attitudes towards female politicians and examine a series of hypotheses. We find voters see female candidates as more capable and are more likely to vote for them, but they are less likely to expect them to win. Female candidates are seen as more capable in their military and healthcare roles, but gender is perceived to be a major barrier to a female candidate’s success. Women and those aligning with the Labor / Green parties are more supportive of a female candidate, but we find limited evidence that those aligning with the Liberal / Nationals are openly hostile to a female candidate.


Gender, voter behaviour, gender bias, experimental research methods, Australian politics.