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Men, women cross gender lines in debate

October 2, 2008 |  3:46 pm

When a male and a female politician square off in a debate setting, a little history (and a little history is all there is to go on here) shows that the woman is slightly more likely to be the the one who comes out swinging, while her male opponent is likely to make a show of getting in touch with his feminine side.

A study published in the December 2005 issue of the journal Communications Studies looked at four debates that took place between a male and female politician at the gubernatorial or senatorial level between 2000 and 2002 -- almost two decades after vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro met in a debate with George H.W. Bush. In those debates, female candidates launched personal attacks on their male opponents in 58% of their responses. Men did so against female opponents in 45% of their responses.

In substance, too, female politicians appeared at greater pains to upend voters' gender-based expectations, found the researchers, University of Missouri communications professor Mitchell McKinney and Prof. Mary Banwart of University of Kansas. Male politicians in the study took a slight lead over women in raising issues traditionally seen as being of interest to women: education, health care, senior citizens, environment, status of women and drug use. And female politicians in debates leaned very slightly forward in raising issues seen as masculine: taxes, budget, unemployment, immigration, crime, defense and international issues.

Overall, says McKinney, the differences in men's and women's debate styles when meeting across the gender divide were very small. But he suggested that was telling: male and female politicians "seemed mindful of gendered stereotypes" and responded with what he called "gendered adaptiveness" -- a reaching across gender lines to demonstrate shared characteristics with members of the opposite sex.

McKinney says male and female politicians have rough shoals to navigate in a debate with one another. Voters want to perceive power and decisiveness in a leader, he says. They also look for likeability. Male politicians, to whom voters are more likely to impute the traits of authority and decisiveness, must throttle those impulses back when debating a women, so as not to appear bullying; female politicians must impress those traits, "but if you go too far, we've got other words for that," says McKinney.

As for likeability, voters' expectations of women's nurturing side make that an easy check for female politicians. But overplay it, he adds, and a woman risks compromising voters' perception of her strength and forcefulness. Here, he notes, male politicians incur little risk of overdoing it.

-- Melissa Healy