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Can Kate Brown restore Oregonians’ confidence in the governor’s office?

- February 20, 2015

On Wednesday, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s resignation took effect and Kate Brown was sworn in as the new governor. Kitzhaber (D) resigned after a public corruption scandal that also involves his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. Although the scandal broke last October, before Kitzhaber was re-elected to a fourth term, it was only last week, that Kitzhaber saw support from veteran lawmakers and fellow Democrats evaporate. With 58 percent of Oregonians saying that Kitzhaber should resign, Democrats were concerned that continuing to work with Kitzhaber would “tarnish” their agenda, which has broad support in the legislature.

Brown is the sixth woman in the country currently serving as governor and she has already promised to “restore public trust in government.”  Women often take office in the wake of corruption scandals – from the Senate in Colombia and local governments in Uganda to police forces in Peru and Mexico. This appears to be based on gender stereotypes that characterize women as more ethical, honest, and trustworthy than men.

But will having a female governor help restore confidence in the governor’s office? Our research suggests that it could.

Our research is based on a 2012 survey in which a representative sample of Americans was told that there were rumors of community organizations registering ineligible voters in another state, and that the candidate who had been trailing in public opinion polls came from behind to win.

The survey included an experiment that varied whether the candidate was a Democrat or Republican, and whether the candidate was referred to as “he,” “she,” or described without a gender reference. This scenario was based on previous research on media coverage of voter registration scandals, and because recent research has found voters are concerned about this type of fraud.

 We found that survey respondents were less likely to suspect female politicians of fraud than male politicians, even when they are allegedly engaged in the same behavior. Among those who read about the male candidate, 28 percent believed it was “very likely” he was involved.  But among those who read about the female candidate, only 18 percent believed she was “very likely” to be involved.

The same pattern holds regardless of whether the candidate was a Democrat or Republican (although respondents were more likely to believe that the Democrat was involved, compared to the Republican — perhaps because Democrats are more frequently accused of this this type of fraud).

Here is another interesting twist.  The people most affected by the gender of the candidate were men, not women.  Women suspected the female candidate only a little bit less than the male candidate.  But men suspected the female candidates much less than the male candidate.

Of course, the Kitzhaber scandal has to do with environmental consulting and conflicts of interest, not election fraud.  And it is possible that any official, male or female, who is not under investigation could improve perceptions of Oregon’s governorship.

Nevertheless, our research suggests that Kate Brown can do more to improve those perceptions than would a newly installed male governor, simply by virtue of her gender.

Tiffany D. Barnes and Emily Beaulieu are assistant professors at the University of Kentucky.