Yep, We Judge Female Politicians on Their Looks

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Photo: Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

For female politicians, a typically “girly” look translates to more votes, according to new research that will probably be of some interest to Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

The effect is especially prevalent among voters in conservative areas, according to a paper published today in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The paper consists of two studies that used real images of both the winners and runners-up in Senate and gubernatorial races, and asked participants a seemingly simple question: Is this face male or female? We perceive faces to be “typically feminine” when the person has larger eyes and rounded features, says Dartmouth psychologist Jon Freeman, who co-authored the paper, whereas a wider face and prominent upper brows signal masculinity.

The researchers used mouse-tracking technology as a way of measuring even a fraction of a second’s worth of uncertainty in answering that question. When the subjects encountered more ambiguously gendered faces, they often would initially move the mouse to check the “male” box, before self-correcting and heading up to the “female” box. In the second of the two studies, responses from 260 participants across the country were tracked.

Across the board, but especially in conservative states, the women whose faces made the volunteers hesitate on the male/female question — even if that hesitation was as brief as 380 milliseconds — were less likely to have won their electoral contests. Somewhat surprisingly, the finding did not hold for male politicians with less masculine features — they weren't penalized at the ballot box, the study found. That might be because we’re used to seeing a wider variety of male politicians’ faces, because men have historically been more prominent in politics, Freeman said.

The psychological theory here is that our brains are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and research suggests that conservatives tend to be less tolerant of a little ambiguity (surprise!) than liberals. Recent research actually measured the “gender typicality” of representatives in the U.S. congress, and found that the Republican women in office tended to have more typically feminine faces. It’s a frustrating finding, suggesting that before a female politician even speaks, many voters will have already, if unconsciously, made up their minds about her.