Taiwan Insight: The Limits of Gender Bias in Perceptions of Candidates

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Taiwan is notable in the region for its successful efforts towards gender parity for elected offices. The 2016 Legislative Yuan election resulted in women winning 38% of seats, comparable more to democracies in Northern Europe than other East Asian democracies.

Having Tsai Ing-wen in office has not only normalised women in the government, but it has also increased the number of women the KMT nominates. In 2018, seven out of nine KMT female mayor and magistrate candidates won, including Lu Shiow-yen, the mayor of Taichung; the DPP did not have any female candidates in mayor or county magistrate races. This is a sharp increase from the 2014 local elections when only two female candidates, both from the DPP, won.

While the success of women at all levels of political office in Taiwan should be commended, we ask to what extent the Taiwanese public still views female candidates differently than male counterparts. Quotas and the success of several female candidates must contend with patriarchal conceptions of gender roles and implicit, if not explicit, biases. Moreover, cross-national research commonly finds that gender influences perceptions of suitability for various political offices and other forms of employment.

We wanted to see if Taiwanese respondents would reveal biases based on the gender of candidates, but acknowledged several challenges in tackling this issue. First, using actual candidates must contend with confounding factors such as partisan identification. For example, one would naturally assume that DPP supporters would evaluate Tsai Ing-wen more favourably than Han Kuo-yu, regardless of her gender or the gender of the respondents. In addition, in contrast to patterns elsewhere, men have been more supportive than women of the DPP in general and of Tsai Ing-wen in particular, although it is unclear to what extent Tsai has created coattail effects for female legislative candidates. Moving away from presidential races partially resolves some of these concerns, while focusing on a hypothetical candidate allows us to isolate one factor that potentially influences perceptions: experience.

Five hundred and two respondents were randomly assigned to receive one of two versions of a statement and asked to evaluate the statement on a five-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. The versions were:

Version 1:  A man without experience in elected office is unfit to be a legislator

Version 2: A woman without experience in elected office is unfit to be a legislator

Overall, we find that respondents were far more likely to disagree with the statement when framed as a hypothetical female candidate rather than a male one. This would contrast with expectations that the public may place additional expectations on female candidates to be considered competitive. Moreover, similar patterns are seen when separating respondents by gender, by age, or by partisanship. If respondents, especially males, were simply unwilling to admit a gender bias, we would not see such consistent patterns. The results suggest that respondents have a general knowledge that female candidates, despite quotas in local offices, lack the same opportunities as male candidates.

While it is unclear whether Taiwan will improve upon gender parity in the legislature in 2020, the results suggest that the public does not bias against women who lack political experience. However, it tells us little about whether the public still expects female candidates to conform to expectations on female-related policies or other factors that may negatively impact electoral success. Nor does it shed light on how the public responds how other politicians comment about the roles of female politicians. President Tsai cannot escape the conventional woman stereotype of a loving wife and mother; she and other prominent female leaders face unabashed sexist treatment from both the KMT and DPP members.

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The Limits of Gender Bias in Perceptions of Candidates

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