Putting Sexism in its Place on the Campaign Trail (2021)

With more women than ever in elected office, more women are likely to face sexism on the campaign trail. Sexism in politics can take many forms, from double standards for women candidates, to undue criticisms of their appearance, voice, or clothing. The decisions of whether and how to address sexism can be complex to navigate for women candidates—involving questions about the candidate’s electability, how to deal with personal offense, and how to message about sexist incidents.

In Barbara Lee Family Foundation research, a majority of voters said they believed that women face sexism while campaigning, and they indicated broad support for women candidates speaking out about the sexist situations they experience. Voters expressed a clear preference for a calm, confident, and professional response—vs. angry or retaliatory—from a woman candidate in response to sexism.


  • There’s a longtime misperception that silence is a strong response when women experience sexism—this research suggests otherwise. Ignoring or being perceived as turning a blind eye to serious incidents of sexism can potentially result in blowback against women candidates because voters want to see strength and backbone.
  • Voters view a woman candidate’s responses to sexism as a demonstration of her leadership and electability – not something that weakens the perception of her electability. Research respondents want a leader who is electable not despite the fact that she addresses sexism, but because she has the leadership skills to address it well.
  • Voters are looking for a candidate to show leadership in her response with a calm, confident, and professional approach. Focusing on the job at hand, demonstrating strength, and leading with calm and confidence are the top qualities voters look for when a woman candidate is responding to sexism.
  • A woman candidate using a personal narrative while addressing a sexist situation can build a connection with voters by linking to universal values. Respondents want a leader who focuses on equality, fairness, and what is best for all women and girls.
  • A woman candidate’s race and age can affect the way voters perceive her response to sexism, but should not change the overall strategy candidates employ against sexist incidents. Voter preferences for how a woman candidate reacts to sexism were consistent in our research across hypothetical candidates of varying age and race.