Masculine Traits Look Good on Female Candidates

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They make a woman running for office appear more confident, but also take a toll on likability.

By Tom Jacobs

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Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As Hillary Clinton knows all too well, women face uniquechallenges when running for high political office. Voters expect them to embody strength and competence — qualities they instinctively associate with men. Yet if they’re too hard-edged, they are perceived as insufficiently warm and engaging.

It feels like a Catch-22, and it is — but only to a point. Newresearch suggests that, on balance, a tough, almost masculine persona helps female candidates build support. Yes, it decreases their “likability,” but only among members of the opposing party — people who aren’t inclined to vote for them in any case.

The findings, published in the journal Political Psychology, provide one explanation for why so many Republicans judge Clinton so harshly. They also suggest any attempt to re-make herself as more warm and cuddly would be not only inauthentic, but also ill-advised.

“Female candidates gain little from emphasizing feminine stereotypic strengths” such as compassion and caring, writes University of Alabama political scientist Nichole Bauer. “Female candidates still have to manage their gender to downplay feminine stereotypes, and play up masculine stereotypes.”

Bauer’s study featured 716 voters recruited by Survey Sampling International to participate in online panels, and another 1,195 Americans recruited on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. She created fake newspaper articles in which a candidate, “Susan Foster” or “Tom Larson,” was described in either stereotypically masculine terms (“tough, assertive, outspoken”) or feminine ones (“caring, compassionate, nurturing”).

The candidates (including those in a control group, who were not given gender-specific labels) were further identified as a member of either the participant’s political party, or the opposition party. Participants rated each on leadership ability, knowledge, and likability (using a 50-point “feeling thermometer”).

The central finding: “Being counterstereotypic helps a female candidate overcome a subtle but pernicious form of gender bias,” Bauer writes. Women candidates described in masculine terms “face few risks, as they receive positive ratings on (both) leadership qualities and communal dimensions” from members of their own party.

“Voters like tough and assertive female candidates, so long as these female candidates are of (their own) political party.”

However, such women are viewed as less likable among members of the other party — which, Bauer writes, helps explain “why there are fewer woman at higher levels of office. As female candidates run for office at higher levels, the ability to attract crossover support becomes more critical,” and this backlash effect increases the difficulty of doing so.

While we’re on the subject of double standards, Bauer reports men don’t have to finesse this issue the way women do. “The best way for a male candidate to convey a tough yet sensitive image is to follow masculine stereotypes,” she writes. “Masculine stereotypes adhere to the expectations voters have for political leaders.”

These results have some practical implications for Clinton, Bauer notes in an e-mail exchange. “Voters like tough and assertive female candidates, so long as these female candidates are of (their own) political party,” she writes. “Clinton can be tough, assertive, and go on the attack against [Donald] Trump from now until November without losing support among Democrats.”

So a fierce, combative demeanor will increase her aura of competence among all voters, and decrease her likability only among those on the political right. And that might not hurt her much, since the GOP’s own candidate also gets low marks for honesty and trustworthiness.

In the end, Barack Obama’s infamous 2008 comment may prove correct— Clinton may turn out to be just likable enough.

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