Female candidates scored some high-profile victories in the latest round of primary elections, most notably in California where two former CEOs won the Republican nominations for governor and U.S. senator. Women also won the GOP nod for U.S. Senate in Nevada, held onto the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination in Arkansas, and took the Republican gubernatorial races in South Carolina and New Mexico.
New research suggests one reason may be the lingering influence of gender stereotypes.
Specifically, the perception that a female politician is seeking personal power lessens support for her, but that same impression has no impact on backing for male candidates. That’s the central conclusion of a study just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“If a woman is merely perceived as having the intention to gain power … people are likely to make a wealth of inferences about her character, and judge her accordingly,” write Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescoll of the Yale School of Management. “Specifically, the intention to gain power may signal to others that she is an aggressive and selfish woman who does not espouse prescribed feminine values of communality.”
Okimoto and Brescoll conducted a study in which 80 participants (two-thirds of whom were female) read brief biographies of two fictional Oregon state senators. “All the information was pre-tested for equivalence,” they note — the exception being one candidate was named Ann and the other John.
After reading the information, the participants were asked to rate on a one-to-seven scale the extent to which the senator exhibited “a clear desire for power and status.” They were also asked which of the two candidates they would likely vote for.
“The higher the perceived power-seeking of the female target, the less likely participants were to vote for her,” the researchers report. “Notably, the lack of a parallel effect for perceived power-seeking of the male target suggests that impressions of political power-seeking only disadvantaged the female target.”
The researchers confirmed this finding in a second, similar experiment, in which inserting a short paragraph describing a candidate as having “a strong will to power” “appeared to increase voting preferences for male targets but decreased voting preferences for female targets.”
A woman seeking power “was seen as less caring and sensitive,” and this impression “translated into negative moral-emotional reactions,” Okimoto and Brescoll report.
In short, while “female politicians were generally not seen as any less favorable than male politicians,” they are expected to fit the stereotype of being more interested in cooperation and consensus than exerting their will. A failure to meet this expectation “may induce backlash,” the researchers write.
These results imply that female candidates need to be careful not to come across as power hungry even as they attempt to assume positions of authority. This can be done — Sarah Palin’s aww-shucks, I’m-one-of-you demeanor arguably immunized her from this dynamic — but it’s obviously tricky, and puts women at a significant disadvantage. A strong desire for power may not be attractive in men, either, but it may be more expected and less off-putting to the electorate than it is in a woman.