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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with 'Today' show co-anchor Matt Lauer, left, speaks at the NBC Commander-In-Chief Forum held at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space museum aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, New York, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Calling out sexism at the debate could actually be bad for women in politics


You can watch tonight's debate live right here

Watch | Gender scholars worry about sexism at the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

If you see something, say something.

That's generally the motto when it comes to sexist behavior toward Hillary Clinton, and it'll likely be the model for Monday night's historic first debate between Clinton and Donald Trump. Spectators will undoubtedly be on the lookout for unfair treatment -- whether it be from Trump or the moderators.

But if the intention of calling out sexism toward Clinton is to make politics a more inclusive place, there is some emerging research to suggest the opposite effect.

The new research comes from Yanna Krupnikov, an associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University. She and her co-authors -- Nichole Bauer at the University of Alabama and Sara Shahmirzadi Yeganeh, also from Stony Brook -- presented their findings at the American Political Science Association this month.

Though the paper is not yet published, Krupnikov told Circa that her research shows that women are more likely to be discouraged from running for office if they are bombarded by reports of sexism.

When you point out that politics is a very sexist place, women want to run for office less
Yanna Krupnikov

"When you point out that politics is a very sexist place, women want to run for office less," she said.

Not only do women want to run for office less, Krupnikov said -- men want to run for office more.

"Men start to think, oh, well politics could be pretty great," she said.

There's an obvious counter to this idea that the media's calling out of sexism could be harmful: Why blame the messenger? If sexist behavior is occurring and discouraging women from running for office, should the perpetrators of that sexism be to blame?

Krupnikov says that's complicated.

"In political science there's a lot of research to suggest that people don't just experience events -- they experience them through the media," she said. "So what you guys tell us happened in the debate is what we're actually going to think happened in the debate."

People will rethink and reevaluate their experiences based on what the media tells them.
Yanna Krupnikov

In other words, Krupnikov said, the media holds a lot of sway in whether people think something was sexist or not. 

"The extent to which the public is going to see noticeable sexism in the debate could depend on whether people in the media perceive there to be sexism," she said.

If the media perceives a ton of sexism at Monday's debate, and calls it out, Krupnikov worries that one unintended side-effect could be that young women are discouraged from wanting to enter politics.

 "You might think to yourself, 'Why would I ever do this? If Hillary Clinton can't get equal treatment in the debate, how could I possibly be happy entering politics?'"

Her worry is even more pronounced by the fact that the current gender disparity in politics is not because women don't get elected -- it's because they don't run in the first place.

So, does that mean the solution is for the media to ignore sexist acts against Hillary Clinton and other female politicians?

Krupnikov said she is "consistently and profoundly torn" by this question, but suggested the solution may be to just to frame things a little differently.

"Focus on her ability to move past [sexism]," she said, suggesting that focusing on Clinton "fighting back" or overcoming sexism is a better angle.

 Other gender scholars, however, are less conflicted about the media's role.

"It is important to call out different forms of marginalization and oppression as opposed to accepting them as the norm," Nadia Brown,  a political science professor at Purdue University, said.

"We need to learn how to talk about structures and pervasive ideologies like sexism and call it out where it is."

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