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Was Rep. Katie Hill held to a higher standard than men in Congress? This research suggests she was.

Society expects women to be more honest and ethical than men — and punishes them more when they’re not

- November 4, 2019

Before resigning last week after sexual photos of her surfaced, Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives for a final time. She decried the double standard in which men accused of much worse sexual misconduct remain in the halls of power:

Several commentators echoed her view that women in politics and society are held to higher standards than men — especially when it comes to sex. Of course, it’s impossible to quantify how much this suspected gendered double standard may have influenced Hill’s resignation. But some empirical evidence supports those claims.

Research on gendered double standards in ethical behavior

Women in general and female politicians in particular are stereotypically perceived as more honest and ethical than their male counterparts. In a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, for example, 31 percent said that women in high political offices were better at being honest and ethical, compared with only 4 percent who said that male politicians were more honest and ethical.

Yet while female candidates may start off with a “virtue advantage,” political scientist Kelly Dittmar shows that men running against women often try to eliminate it by raising questions about their opponent’s honesty and integrity whenever given the chance. And because society expects women to be more honest and ethical, it often treats women more harshly than men for unethical and dishonest behavior.

Indeed, a recent experimental study found that participants recommended harsher punishments for a fictitious female hospital administrator who deliberately filed a false Medicare claim than when told about a male administrator who did the same. The three researchers who conducted the study then extended this finding into the real world, showing that the American Bar Association punished female attorneys more severely than male attorneys for similar ethical violations.

Some scholars suggest that this double standard could be partly why the media focused so heavily on questioning Hillary Clinton’s character during the 2016 presidential campaign. Researchers at Rutgers University and American University further concluded that Clinton’s “failure to meet stereotypical expectations of honesty and ethics may have had more detrimental effects on voter evaluations than if she were a man.”

The same gendered double standard may have also been a factor, then, in pushing Hill to resign.

Partisanship also matters

To be sure, gender is surely not the only reason Hill may have been held to a higher standard than some of her male colleagues. A double standard seems to exist between Democratic and Republican politicians as well.

As I noted in an earlier TMC post, Democrats have long been more concerned than Republicans about sexual harassment. This gap has widened significantly during Donald Trump’s presidency, as several prominent Republicans have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct.

With such different levels of concerns over the seriousness of sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, Democratic and Republican politicians have responded quite differently to accusations of sexual misconduct. Republicans have generally closed ranks around fellow partisans accused of sexual harassment and/or assault, including Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Roy Moore and Trump. Democrats, meanwhile, pressured Hill and former senator Al Franken (Minn.) to resign from Congress.

Democrats are also more concerned than Republicans about ethical double standards affecting women in politics. According to Pew Research Center data, Democrats are more than twice as likely than Republicans to say that higher ethical standards for women are a “major reason why there are fewer women than men in high political offices,” by 51 percent to 20 percent respectively.

Regardless of the reasons behind it, Hill’s resignation will certainly reinforce those suspicions.