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University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Politics

First names, family, and appearance: On social media, female politicians are discussed differently

Gender bias — Female politicians are referred to less respectfully on the internet than their male colleagues. This places women in politics — and our societies — at a disadvantage, according to one of the researchers behind a new study.

Even though 40 per cent of the new Danish parliament’s members are women after the last Danish election, and even though there have never been more women’s names on the ballot in Denmark, there are still differences between how male and female politicians are perceived and referenced.

This is something that Karolina Stańczak of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Copenhagen is doing research on. She and her colleague Isabelle Augenstein have analysed more than ten million comments on more than 300,000 politicians on the social media Reddit, and the results speak for themselves.

»Male and female politicians are discussed just as often,« says Karolina Stańczak and elaborates:

»But when female politicians are mentioned, it is in a considerably less respectful language.«

In her research, she has discovered that women in politics are often only referred to by their first name, whereas their male colleagues are, by contrast, referred to by their surname. The research also shows that women’s clothes, appearance, and familial relations are discussed far more often than men’s.

Rooted in a perception of who politicians are

The purpose of Karolina Stańczak’s research has been to identify gender bias in the coverage of politicians. Based on social science, the researcher has a suggestion on what some of the reasons for it are.

»We have this image in our heads of politicians as strong, serious, energetic men, and because female politicians do not fit into this image, they are not treated with the same respect,« she reckons.

»It can also have something to do with the connection between female politicians and being a mother,« she says, and uses the former German chancellor Angela Merkel as an example.

»In spite of her career and power, she was often described as a mother. And you associate a mother with warmth and closeness rather than authority.«

The different ways in which we refer to men and women can have major consequences, according to Karolina Stańczak.

»We risk voting for a male politician rather than a female politician, even though they hold the same opinions, simply because men simply fit better into our conception of what a politician is.«

Unconscious bias

The article on gender bias is about politicians throughout the world. But even though the researchers have examined fewer Danish politicians than foreign ones, there is nothing to suggest that Denmark deviates from the global gender bias.

»We definitely need to investigate this more. But it looks like the trend also holds for Denmark,« says Karolina Stańczak. She explains that Danish politicians like Mette Frederiksen, Margrethe Vestager and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, all of them with international reputations, are the subjects of debate on Reddit.

»This is what Mette Frederiksen is talking about when she, in an interview just before the last Danish general election in November 2022, said that she was perceived differently because she was a woman. I can’t confirm this with 100 per cent certainty, but our research indicates that this could easily be the case.«

Karolina Stańczak says that she is far from finished in her work on the topic. She and her colleagues have several projects on the way, and would also like to take a closer look at how we refer to, say, diplomats.

»It is really difficult to change cultural norms and people’s way of thinking. It takes many, many years,« says Karolina Stańczak.

»Our research does not change anything in the here and now. But it is important because it clarifies some bias that we might not have known that we have. It is important to reflect over this when we, for example, vote in elections.«

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