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November 4, 2010The number of women in Congress has gone down in 2010 for the first time in 30 years despite a record number of women who ran for the House and Senate. Gender stereotyping is behind the decline.

“It’s always been tougher for women to get elected in a tough economy because voters tend to think women aren't as good on the economy,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “They don't want to take risks in a bad economy, and they perceive women as being riskier.”

Catalyst has found that gender stereotyping is rampant in corporate America, too, where women are deemed “too soft, too tough and never just right.” We call it the “double bind.” As I discussed in Monday’s post, when women act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes, they are viewed as incompetent. When they behave in ways that aren’t consistent with stereotypes, they are considered unfeminine. It’s a lose-lose situation.

It shouldn’t be. The first female Congresswoman served in 1922—it’s hard to believe that nearly 90 years later we are still maligned based on gender when seeking, or serving in, public office.

But when you combine the “double-bind” with media that is hostile to female candidates, it’s no surprise that in America men are nearly twice as likely as women to seriously consider running for state-level office and 65 percent more likely than women to assess themselves as “very qualified” to run. Sexist attacks reinforce negative stereotypes and can contribute to a climate that keeps women from entering politics.

A Catalyzing reader asked me how we can change the toxic conversation into something more productive. A recent study found that gender-based attacks damage women candidates in the polls, but the damage could be lessened by addressing sexism head-on. The same is true at work. To escape the “double bind,” Catalyst advises women to talk openly about the issue—whether it is an inappropriate comment or a statement that unfairly generalizes about women’s abilities.

What helps is to bring stereotyping out in the open—expose it when you see it.