Literature Review: Female politicians and their portrayal in the media

Research Questions

1.   Are women less likely than men to run for public office?

2.   What are the main differences between the portrayal of male and female politicians within mass media?

3.   How has the portrayal in the media of Australia’s first female Prime Mister, Julia Gillard, affected women’s political ambitions?

Literature Review


Women, although making up 49.54% the worlds’ population in 2015 (The World Bank Group, 2015), do not hold half the political positions available. This descriptive literature review assesses the barriers and issues limiting women’s accessibility to political positions, particularly focusing on their portrayal in the mass media and the adverse effects of this depiction on their careers and personal lives. Analysing the differences between the media representation of male and female politicians is crucial in determining the extent of sexism and bias within mass media. Looking specifically at the media’s portrayal of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, this review will examine literature that discusses the gender bias displayed in the mass media. This review focuses on books, articles, specific events and coverage, and parliamentary records to summarise relevant and important literature on this topic.

Women in public office

Women are currently much less likely than men to run for public office. In examining why, the literature and research can be grouped into four predominate areas of study. The first focuses on the media’s power to influence sociological and ideological patterns. The second targets the need felt by women to alter their behaviour to seek acceptance in the male dominated domain. The third assesses the reasons behind the lack of women in leadership globally. Fourthly, the research focuses on the media’s tendency to represent women politicians in a gender-specific manner, by aiming attention towards their sex, rather than their politics (Williams, 2013).

Much of the literature is based on research and studies from within the United States, particularly focusing on American candidates. A national U.S. study found that “a candidate’s sex does not affect his or her chances of winning an election” (Seltzer, Newman, & Leighton, 1997), though there is a limited amount of literature which examines the role of gender in the broader electoral process (Fox & Lawless, 2004). While gender of the candidate does not affect their chances of winning elections, the gender of the voter influences who they vote for, as it has been found that women are more likely to vote for female candidates than are men (Dolan, 2008).

Gender bias no longer significantly impedes a female candidate’s election prospects (Dolan, 2004), yet the fact remains that women made up only 23.3% of the world’s parliaments as of May 2017 (IPU, 2017). The predominant reason for this is that women are substantially less likely than men to show political ambition (Lawless & Fox, 2008), because the costs and risks are far higher than they are for men (Fox & Lawless, 2004). While women are often more inclined to be concerned with balancing their career and family life than men (Jamieson, 1995), it is important to examine other issues that discourage women from utilising their political ambition.

Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox outline five factors that hinder women’s political ambitions in their 2013 report Girls Just Wanna Not Run:

1.   “Young men are more likely than young women to be socialised by their parents to think about politics as a career path

2.   From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men

3.   Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning

4.   Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office – from anyone

5.   Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even once they are established in their careers” (Lawless & Fox, 2013)

Women are progressively less inclined to run for political office because they have witnessed the media’s sexist portrayal of other female politicians. In addition, some researchers have concluded that this results in a reduction of impartial representation and furthermore, can influence the effectiveness and legitimacy of a democracy (Sindhuja & Murugan, 2017).

These factors help us understand several reasons for a lack of political interest evident in young women, although we need to assess the cultural and institutional issues at play which deter women from entering politics. Literature on the representation of female politicians in the media regularly determines its sexist reality, and subsequent impact on the number of women who are willing to run for public office (Haraldsson, 2016).

The portrayal of male and female politicians in the mass media

Research has determined that women are not less likely to win elections based on their gender, however, it has also been found that negative media coverage directly impacts candidates’ election chances (Markstedt, 2007). How are women portrayed in the mass media, particularly in relation to their male counterparts? The literature shows that sexism in the media is extensive, through the minimising of female politicians’ abilities, belittling their achievements, stereotyping, and the sexualisation of women (Haraldsson, 2016).

Mass media, as the main source of political information for citizens, is known to affect our culture, buying habits, and our political views (Biagi, 2012). In turn, our societal beliefs and behaviours can change integral aspects of media communications. As our society becomes aware of and begins to question the generally patriarchal disposition and preconceived bigotry within our Western democratic societies, the mass media might be compelled to change with the times and alter its portrayal of female politicians accordingly. However, is this prediction perhaps too optimistic? Trends in social media suggest that it is so.

Sexist comments are common in online discussion (Dahlberg, 2001) and social media is known to reflect the rise of misogyny and sexism in popular culture (Hermida, 2014). As the accessibility and competitiveness of media coverage increases, this encourages a more aggressive and concentrated mass media. Perhaps social media will continue to change the mass media landscape into a more aggressively sexist platform, increasing the negative effects on female candidates’ political potential.

Much of the literature suggests that sexism is rampant within the media, and many sources go on to explore the differences between the media’s portrayal of male and female politicians. Donatella Campus suggests that female politicians are seen as either too aggressive or too weak, and are expected to be both tough and feminine, and this complication contributes to the “historical disjuncture between women and the notion of power” (Campus, 2013). These concerns are rarely found in the media’s representation of male politicians, rather, they are portrayed as strong or compassionate.

Women receive far less substantial media coverage than men, with more focus placed on their appearance than their political endeavours and policy priorities (Braden, 1996; Haraldsson, 2016; Kahn, 1996; Markstedt, 2007). They are also more likely than their male counterparts to be questioned about their societal gender roles rather than their career (Jalalzai, 2006). For example, women politicians with children are often asked how they balance their work and family life. Their achievements are often minimised or demeaned by labelling them by their role in the private sphere or their marital status, such as a ‘mother of two’, or ‘wife of businessman’ rather than ‘elected official’, or ‘respected lawyer’. This labelling damages female politicians’ credibility and tarnishes their public image (Braden, 1996).

The obstacles arising out of gender stereotyping and biased media coverage make it essential for female politicians to define their own image through self-presentation (Bystrom, Robertson, Banwart, & Kaid, 2004). Kathleen Dolan advises politicians to utilise their own websites to introduce themselves and their policy positions, without the prospect of gendered labelling (Dolan, 2005), although there is not a great deal of research on whether such self-presentation reflects or challenges the media’s presentation of the candidates (Markstedt, 2007). Though candidates have the option of presenting themselves professionally on websites they control, it is their portrayal in the mass media that people will predominately see, and despite hopes of a change in the future, the literature suggest that women politicians are currently portrayed in a different manner to their male counterparts.

Julia Gillard’s media coverage and its effect on women’s political ambition

Sexist coverage in the media has affected countless female politicians, although few quite as obvious and astoundingly as the portrayal of Julia Gillard. However rare, female politicians have been elected into the top political jobs as national leader, yet even in those positions, their ability to lead is still questioned by the media (Ross, 2010). Though it is the media’s duty to question leadership and political strategies, it is not the media’s duty to perpetuate stereotypes and sexist rhetoric. The media continues to disregard a female politicians’ accomplishments and promote them as secondary members, even if she is the Prime Minister (van Acker, 1999). Julia Baird suggests that Gillard’s deliberate deflection of gender was an indication of her willingness to play the political game (Baird, 2010). That was, of course, until October 9th, 2012, when Prime Minister Gillard delivered an historic parliamentary speech directly addressed to then Opposition Lead Tony Abbott.

Gillard’s famous Misogyny Speech saw an enormously supportive response on social media, being celebrated for affirming the relevance of the feminism debate today (Goldsworthy, 2013). Wright and Holland argue that the media’s framing of Gillard and her speech perpetuated the double gender bind (the need to portray themselves as masculine yet feminine), further constraining women political leaders. Their article Julia Gillard, Leadership and the Media reveals that the media’s “coverage of the speech comprised three principal gendered framings: strategic attack, uncontrolled emotional outpouring, and hypocrisy” (Wright & Holland, 2014). Even when female politicians as national leaders defend themselves against biased treatment, the media still fails to objectively examine their own generally misogynistic coverage of such events and the impacts they could have.

Blair William’s report Julia Gillard, the Media and Young Women analyses how Australia’s first female Prime Minister was “systematically treated in an unfair and biased manner by mainstream media due to her gender”, and the impact this portrayal had on young Australian women (Williams, 2013). She found that the majority of her research participants believed Gillard’s media treatment to be unfair and biased, and that a male politician in her political situation would never experience the same media treatment. Her research showed that media representation of female politicians greatly affected young women’s political and personal leadership aspirations.


This literature review examines the issues that limit, hinder and dissuade women from entering politics, with particular reference to women’s representation in the media. This review provides a useful starting point for further research into this area of inquiry.


Baird, J. (2010). Comment: Julia Gillard. The Monthly. Retrieved from

Biagi, S. (2012). Media Impact: An Introduction to Mass Media. California: Cengage Learning.

Braden, M. (1996). Women, Politics and the Media. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Bystrom, D. G., Robertson, T., Banwart, M. C., & Kaid, L. L. (2004). Gender and Candidate Communication: VideoStyle, WebStyle, NewStyle. New York: Routledge.

Campus, D. (2013). Women Political Leaders and the Media. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Dahlberg, L. (2001). The Internet and Democratic Discourse: Exploring The Prospects of Online Deliberative Forums Extending the Public Sphere. Information, Communication & Society, 4(4), 615-633. doi:10.1080/13691180110097030

Dolan, K. (2004). Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates. Boulder: Westview Press.

Dolan, K. (2005). Do Women Candidates Play to Gender Stereotypes? Do Men Candidates Play to Women? Candidate Sex and Issues Priorities on Campaign Websites. Political Research Quarterly, 58(1), 31-44. doi:10.2307/3595593

Dolan, K. (2008). Is There a “Gender Affinity Effect” in American Politics? Information, Affect, and Candidate Sex in U.S House Elections. Political Research Quarterly, 61(1), 79-89.

Fox, R. L., & Lawless, J. L. (2004). Entering the Arena? Gender and the Decision to Run for Office. American Journal of Political Science, 48(2), 264-280. doi:10.2307/1519882

Goldsworthy, A. (2013). Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny. Quarterly Essay, 50, 1-79.

Haraldsson, A. (2016). Women’s Political Ambition and Representation: The Democratic Consequence of Media Sexism. (Master’s Programme in International Administration and Global Governance), Göteborgs Universitet. Retrieved from

Hermida, A. (2014). Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

IPU. (2017). Women in Parliaments: World and National Averages. Retrieved 18 May 2017

Jalalzai, F. (2006). Women Candidates and the Media: 1992‐2000 Elections. Politics & Policy, 34(3), 606-633.

Jamieson, K. H. (1995). Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kahn, K. F. (1996). The Political Consequences of Being a Woman: How Stereotypes Influence the Conduct and Consequences of Political Campaigns. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lawless, J. L., & Fox, R. L. (2008). Why are Women Still not Running for Public Office? Issues in Governance Studies (Vol. 16). Washington: Brookings Institution.

Lawless, J. L., & Fox, R. L. (2013). Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition. Washington: Women & Politics Institute.

Markstedt, H. (2007). Political Handbags: The Representation of Women Politicians. London: MEDIA@LSE Electronic MSc Dissertation Series.

Ross, K. (2010). Gendered Media: Women, Men, and Identity Politics. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Seltzer, R., Newman, J., & Leighton, M. V. (1997). Sex as a Political Variable: Women as Candidates and Voters in U.S. Elections. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Sindhuja, P., & Murugan, K. R. (2017). Factors Impeding Women’s Political Participation. International Journal of Applied Research, 3(4), 563-565.

The World Bank Group. (2015). Population, Female (% of total).

van Acker, E. (1999). Different Voices: Gender and Politics in Australia. South Yarra: Macmillian Education Australia.

Williams, B. (2013). Julia Gillard, the Media and Young Women. Retrieved from YWCA of Adelaide:

Wright, K., & Holland, J. (2014). Julia Gillard, Leadership and the Media: Gendered Framings of the ‘Sexism and Misogyny’ Speech. Australian Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 455-468.

Feature image credit:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s