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Posted 10.14.05

Gender is a Relative Term in Politics, MU Study Finds

Males and Females Adopt Different Communication Styles to Succeed in Political Arena

COLUMBIA, MO -- The new ABC television series, Commander in Chief, features a woman in a role many people imagine as only being filled by a male, the President of the United States. This female president must adopt traits and tactics that are typically ascribed to male leaders in order to deal with fellow politicians reluctant to accept a female into their political circle. A recent study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that in real-life political arenas male and female candidates adopt each others traditional communication styles.

"In politics, the stereotypical 'masculine traits' of being tough and ambitious, as well as having strong leadership and administrative skills, are more highly valued over the 'feminine' traits of being compassionate, family-oriented and in possession of strong people skills," said Mitchell McKinney, assistant professor of communication at MU, who conducted the study along with Mary Banwart, communication professor at the University of Kansas.

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Communication Studies

The study, which will appear in Communication Studies in December, examined candidates engaged in televised, mixed-gender campaign debates, including U.S. Senate and gubernatorial debates. McKinney found that female candidates were just as likely to use so-called "masculine" communication strategies as their male counterparts. Conversely, male candidates, just as frequently as female candidates, adopted a feminine style in their debate responses.

According to McKinney, female candidates issued a personal attack in their debate responses 55 percent of the time compared with 48 percent for male candidates. Female candidates also were more likely to raise traditional "masculine" issues, such as crime, defense, taxes and budget issues, than their male opponents and were more likely to tout their own accomplishments.

"Through these strategies, these women are trying to overcome traditional notions that question a female candidate's governing competence and also the stereotypes that male candidates possess greater political ability and have greater political experience," McKinney said.

Alternatively, male candidates were more likely to emphasize feminine traits, such as sensitivity and cooperation, in selling themselves. They also were more likely to address so-called "feminine" issues, such as women's issues, health care and education, than female candidates.

"This study suggests that when female and male candidates meet face-to-face on the debate stage, both seem mindful of gendered stereotypes and respond with a strategy of gendered adaptiveness - with each adopting communication strategies and styles characteristically attributed to the opposite gender," McKinney said.



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