A prominent explanation for why women are significantly underrepresented in public office in the U.S. is that stereotypes lead voters to favor male candidates over female candidates. Yet whether voters actually use a candidate’s sex as a voting heuristic in the presence of other common information about candidates remains a surprisingly unsettled question. Using a conjoint experiment that controls for stereotypes, we show that voters are biased against female candidates but in some unexpected ways. The average effect of a candidate’s sex on voter decisions is small in magnitude, is limited to presidential rather than congressional elections, and appears only among male voters. More importantly, independent voters display the greatest negative bias against female candidates. The results suggest that partisanship works as a kind of “insurance” for voters who can be sure that the party affiliation of the candidate will represent their views in office regardless of the sex of the candidate.
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