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University Relations

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Jan. 5, 2006
Contact: Mary Christine Banwart, assistant professor of communication studies, (785) 864-5681.

KU professor's study shows male, female candidates use opposite gender traits

LAWRENCE -- Researchers from the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri have published a study that suggests male and female candidates for political office are adopting each other's communication and gender styles to appeal to voters.

Mary Banwart, KU assistant professor of communication studies, and Mitchell McKinney, assistant professor of communication at MU, recently published their work in the scholarly journal Communications Studies. They conclude that when male and female candidates face each other in debates, they are approaching the forums with similar presentation styles. Female candidates incorporate typically masculine attributes into their debate dialogue just as frequently as their male opponents, and the male candidates incorporate typically feminine attributes in their debate dialogue just as frequently as their female opponents. Banwart calls this approach "gendered adaptiveness."

Banwart and McKinney decided to study debate styles of male and female candidates because of the lack of research in this area, Banwart said.

"Studies examining presidential debates are well-known," Banwart said. "There are, however, few studies focusing on debates between female and male candidates. Part of this is due to the times we live in. We only now have enough women who are running for office in which the debates are televised, so that we can analyze them."

Historically, only 2 percent of the nation's congressional office holders have been women. That has changed significantly in the past 20 years, Banwart said. Females now make up 14 percent of the membership in the U.S. House and Senate. Kansas ranks eighth in the nation for number of female legislators.

For their research, Banwart and McKinney looked at two U.S. Senate and two gubernatorial races during the 2000 and 2002 election cycles, including the race between Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan and U.S. Rep Jim Talent.

What they found was that male candidates were frequently using the female gender traits of relating to issues in a personal way, as well as emphasizing the traditionally female character traits of honesty, integrity and caring.

"Male politicians are not automatically assigned those traits by voters, and male candidate must prove to the public that they have those attributes," Banwart said.

Meanwhile, female candidates, in their debates with men, often used an aggressive, assertive style of communicating that demonstrates their leadership and their ability to make "difficult" decisions, which the public generally assigns to male candidates.

At the national level, female candidates are perceived by the public to be more capable of handling "domestic" issues such as education, the environment and health care. Male candidates are perceived to be stronger on issues of national security, taxes and homeland security, Banwart said.

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