Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss in the 2016 presidential election was chalked up, in part, to a widely held belief that voters prefer male candidates generally, and that they are especially put off by women who appear too ambitious or aggressive.
Those concerns have been revisited by pundits, in workplaces, and across dinner tables with former Vice President Joe Biden’s choice of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate on the Democratic ticket. Some critics have called the former California attorney general overly self-seeking. That buzz has only grown as Harris, a former prosecutor, gets ready to take on Vice President Mike Pence, in Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate.
It turns out, however, that American voters don’t penalize women who seem ambitious, according to a new paper published in the journal Political Behavior by Sparsha Saha, M.A. ’10 Ph.D. ’14, a political scientist and lecturer in Harvard’s Government Department. Despite the vast body of literature on voter behavior, Saha and her co-author, Ana Catalano Weeks, Ph.D. ’16, assistant professor at the University of Bath, say it’s the first study of voter perceptions of candidate ambition.
The pair’s work builds on several studies done by Harvard researchers and others over the years that consistently show that when women ask for raises or promotions, they are often penalized in the workplace.
“After [Clinton’s] loss, a lot of the framing and the focus had been on ‘Was she too ambitious for people?’” said Saha.
“And it seemed like what Clinton was doing was asking for the biggest promotion,” said Weeks. “And so we thought … does that translate into politics?”