Frederico Batista Pereira, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Although very few women currently hold the positions of president and prime minister across countries, the twenty-first century has seen a rise in the proportion of women occupying the highest position of executive power across the globe. Along with this rise in female representation, we have also witnessed a trend of female chief executives struggling to maintain public support while facing corruption allegations and scandals. Two prominent cases are the recent impeachments of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Park Geon-hye in South Korea. The trend raises questions about whether female leaders receive differential treatment when they are perceived to be involved in corruption, especially since women are often seen by the public as more honest and trustworthy than men.
To investigate whether there is a stronger backlash for corruption against female leaders, and whether that feedback is related to beliefs about the purity and honesty of women relative to men, I conducted online survey-experiments in Brazil and Mexico, two large and diverse Latin American countries with high levels of public perceptions of corruption. The key difference between the two countries is the fact that, while Brazil has had a female president who was impeachment and perceived by many to be corrupt, Mexico has never elected a female president. Even though the simple two-case comparison between the two countries cannot offer a formal test of how context can moderate the gendered backlash effects, it can provide valuable insights about the phenomenon.
The survey-experiments provided participants with information about a hypothetical city councilor in the country. Participants received personal information (profession, marital status, and children) and a description of the experience and current job performance of the politician. The statement also informed participants that the politician received high evaluations and was awarded prizes for competency in office. The first experimental manipulation randomly assigned participants to read about a female or a male politician. The second manipulation randomly assigned participants to receive or not an additional statement including an allegation of corruption against the politician. The statement mentioned a hypothetical report from an organization investigating the politician’s past financial mismanagement of public resources and illicit enrichment.
The experiments also included three questions about different dimensions of the politician’s popularity, as well as questions about whether participants endorsed sexist views about women in politics, which included items on whether men are less honest than women, and if women have more purity than men. The main expectations that the studies seek to evaluate are whether the decrease in popularity due to the corruption accusation is larger for the female politician than for the male politician, and whether that drop is larger among participants who endorse stereotypes of women as more honest than men.
The results show that, while the decrease in popularity due to the corruption allegation is large in both Brazil and Mexico, the stronger backlash against the female politician is only observed in the latter. In Mexico, the decrease in popularity is six percentage points larger for the female politician than for the male politician. On the other hand, neither study finds that the backlash against the female politician accused of corruption is larger among the participants who endorse the stereotypes of women as pure and honest.
All in all, the findings are mixed about the differential backlash for corruption against female politicians. While the results from Mexico align with cross-national studies of executive approval in showing that corruption has larger negative effects on the popularity of female politicians, the null results in Brazil suggest that the backlash effect may depend on contextual factors. Among the many factors that may explain the differences between the two countries, three seem to be most salient. First, the impeachment of Rousseff could have provided a strong counter-example that reduced the relevance of the stereotypes about women’s purity and honesty. Second, recent anti-corruption efforts in Brazil may have decreased the overall levels of tolerance of corruption for both male and female politicians. Third, the availability of considerations about women at the local level may be stronger in Mexico, since the country has higher local-level female representation than Brazil. Nonetheless, the findings do not provide support for the claim the stereotypes of women’s purity and honesty explain the stronger backlash for corruption against female politicians in the contexts where it occurs. Future research is needed to understand the psychological mechanisms as well as the contextual factors driving the differential treatment against female politicians.