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Even Slight Gender Ambiguity Is Costly to Female Candidates

New research finds women politicians whose faces are instantly categorized as female are more likely to win elections.
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(Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock)

Far more than we care to admit, our choice of political candidates is influenced by their appearance—specifically, whether they strike us as attractive and competent. Newly published research finds that, for female politicians, still another factor comes in to play in helping us decide whether they’re worthy of our vote: Whether their looks are unambiguously feminine.

In two studies—one in a lab, another using real-world results—a research team led by Dartmouth College psychologists Jonathan Freeman and Eric Hehman finds female candidates are at a disadvantage if voters need even a fraction of a second longer to determine their gender.

It seems this short-lived confusion triggers emotional discomfort, which leads people to evaluate the candidate less favorably.

“The more feminine a female politician's face was perceived, the more likely she was to win her election,” said Freeman, who added that this dynamic is especially strong in conservative-leaning areas of the country.

"Electoral success for women may require a delicate balance between retaining associations with traditional femininity and attractiveness, while additionally evoking perceptions of competence, a masculine-associated trait."

“Larger eyes and rounded figures convey femininity,” the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. This research suggests they also produce votes.

The researchers assembled a series of images of political candidates’ faces, each of which was rated by an online panel that judged their attractiveness and perceived competence. For the first study, 31 Dartmouth undergraduates categorized each candidate as male or female as rapidly as possible using a computer mouse. Afterwards, they rated their likelihood to vote for each candidate on a scale of one to six.

The result: They were less likely to vote for women candidates if there was even a tiny amount of hesitancy in assigning their gender. This dynamic was not found for the male politicians.

The second study used the same method of measuring gender ambiguity, but compared it to actual election results. The participants—260 Americans recruited online—completed the same quick-reaction test using the same set of photos.

Their answers were then compared with the results of recent elections in the participants’ home states—specifically, the margins of victory the winning candidates received over their main opponents. Each state’s spot on the liberal/conservative continuum was determined by looking at the results of the five most recent presidential elections.

Mirroring the lab test, the researchers found that women politicians who couldn’t be instantaneously categorized as female received fewer votes. “These effects were independent of other social dimensions previously implicated in political decision-making, such as competence, attractiveness, and familiarity,” they write.

This effect “was exacerbated in more conservative constituencies,” the researchers add—not a huge surprise, given that conservatism has long been linked with less tolerance of uncertainty.

“The findings suggest that gender-atypical female politicians may be deemed as less suitable for leadership, overall,” they write. “In real-world elections, however ... (this dynamic) persists only among those who more strongly value gender typicality: conservatives.”

So why weren’t subtly ambiguous male candidates similarly penalized? While the researchers aren’t sure, they note that, given then the fact that American political leaders have historically been men, “leader-like characteristics may be automatically conferred upon male politicians.”

It’s particularly striking that this effect was found “above and beyond the numerous other influences on electoral outcomes,” in the researchers’ words. One might think that voters would grow accustomed to a candidate’s face over the course of a campaign, but this research suggests otherwise.

“Although whether a politician is male or female is certainly established quite quickly, how relatively masculine or feminine his or her face appears persists,” Freeman explained. “Each time an individual encounters that politician's face, our results suggest a state of subtle uncertainty is triggered.”

They also suggest that female politicians are in a tricky position.

“Electoral success for women may require a delicate balance between retaining associations with traditional femininity and attractiveness,” the researchers write, “while additionally evoking perceptions of competence, a masculine-associated trait.”

Sounds like the political equivalent of dancing backwards and in high heels.