Ladylike Electability

Andrew Sullivan —  May 16 2014 @ 2:37pm

A Dartmouth study suggests that women politicians with more feminine features are more likely to win elections than their more butch peers:

In fact, “a female politician’s success was related to how feminine or masculine her face was perceived less than one half-second after its initial exposure, suggesting that the way a face’s gender is rapidly processed may translate into real-world political outcomes,” Jon Freeman, author and assistant professor at Dartmouth, said in the study’s release.

The results got even more interesting when they were broken down by region.

“In conservative areas in particular, the difference in votes between women with more masculine faces and more feminine faces becomes larger and larger as conservatism increases,” says Eric Hehman, lead author and postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth. In other words, conservatives want their female politicians to look like ladies.

Andrew Prokop points out the study’s limitations:

The study only uses pictures of 80 female politicians, between 1998 and 2010. So the number of politicians who ran in conservative states that we’re looking at is really rather small.

Furthermore, it’s possible that female candidates who are more likely to win will pay more attention to managing their image, and will therefore release more flattering official photos (though this was apparently not the case in liberal states). The study’s authors also write that, though they did try to control for this, the experiment’s participants could have had some vague familiarity with the the images of successful female politicians — which would lead to them more easily recognizing their faces as female.

But Elizabeth Nolan Brown notes that the study squares with previous research:

There have been a bevy of studies looking at how looks play a role in the politicians’s success (see hereherehereherehere, and here). Freeman’s study—published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science—echoes a UCLA study published in 2012. In that study, researchers (including two who also collaborators on this recent study) looked at the facial features of women in the U.S. House of Representatives. Those with more stereotypically feminine features were more likely to be Republican, and the correlation increased the more conservative the lawmaker’s voting record. Lady legislators with less traditionally feminine facial features were more likely to be Democrats, fitting with the Dartmouth study finding that feminine faces offer a greater electoral advantage in conservative states.

Tom Jacobs asks what the study implies for male pols:

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.”

Cillizza makes the obvious connection:

It’s hard to avoid viewing this study in light of the potential (likely) candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. As we have previously written, Clinton played down her gender — and the historic nature of her candidacy — during the 2008 candidacy, a move that we believe hurt her. She’s not likely to repeat that mistake in 2016 — if her earlier rhetoric is any indication — but the Dartmouth study suggests that what she says may matter less to voters than how she looks, all of which reaffirms that life really is just like high school.

But Jay Newton-Small cautions against reading too much into the study:

Before you start to imagine that every woman elected to higher office is a supermodel, keep in mind that the study doesn’t take into account a lot of factors such as intelligence, party affiliation, incumbency, messaging, pedigree, money, etc. “Although it may be the case that, absent other information, voters consider facial features when selecting candidates, the reality is that the experimental conditions are quite artificial,” says Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University who studies gender in American politics. “In the contemporary electoral environment in which we see a high degree of party polarization, many scholars have found that even when candidate sex and physical appearance do matter to voters, their influence pales in comparison to incumbency, partisanship, and ideology as principal drivers of election outcomes.”