Pantyhose Politics

Study: Voters Want Their Female Politicos to Look Like Ladies

Two new studies indicate that voters are instinctively drawn to women candidates with traditionally feminine features such as big eyes or long hair.


New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd knew Hillary Clinton would be running for office last year when she saw the new haircut. “She has ditched the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a K.G.B. villainess in a Bond movie and has a sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous,” Dowd wrote.

Dowd’s piece was met with cries of ‘sexism’, but she might have been on to something. Some version of the mug-worthy dictum “Look like a lady, act like a man, and work like a dog,” has floated through the offices of career-minded women for decades. And two new studies (PDF) , published today in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, support the idea that powerful women who look like ladies do get ahead—because, according to researchers, a woman’s physical features can make or break elections.

Every person is made up of a mix of masculine and feminine features. Some are biological—larger eyes and rounder faces are more feminine, for instance, while a prominent chin is more masculine. Others are a social, and changeable: women can wear makeup, or grow their hair out to boost their femininity and men can grow a beard.

Researchers asked about 300 participants to look at photos of politicians’ faces on a computer then classify them by moving their mouse from the bottom of the screen and clicking on either the male or female buttons at the top of the page. Little deviations in the mouse movement and trajectory were used to measure uncertainty. So while a participant might ultimately decide that a politician was female, if it took a longer time or the mouse moved closer to the male option while choosing, that would indicate the presence of more masculine feature—a short-haired woman for example.

They then looked at how these deviations in mouse movements would affect a candidate’s electability in two ways. They asked students in the lab to indicate whether they would vote for politicians and then examined real-world election results. And they found that the more participants were drawn to select the male response when categorizing the gender of a female politician’s face, the less likely she was to win her election.

Women with more feminine features did decidedly better at the polls. 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.

But does “more feminine” just equal prettier? Partly, Hehman says.

“Attractiveness is definitely related to the femininity of a face but they’re not the same thing. There can be females who have masculine facial features that are still considered attractive…and controlling for attractiveness—removing it from the equation essentially, doesn’t change the results.

Along with attractiveness, the researchers also controlled for qualities like trustworthiness and competency, all variables known to impact elections. Still, the masculine/feminine relationship’s effect stayed significant.

Previous research into the electability of politicians based on physical qualities like attractiveness have almost exclusively focused on men—because until recently, there weren’t enough women in politics to study.