Face Value: A Study on the Gender Gap in Politics

by Kari Belsheim

A study at Northwestern University looks at the way we judge politicians to help explain the gender gap in politics. The study denies that people rationally consider candidates, and instead states, “research indicates that people use shallow decision heuristics, such as impressions of competence made solely from facial appearance when deciding whom to vote for.” 

73 students (38 women and 35 men) looked at facial photos of prospective presidential candidates—actual congressional candidates—and judged them on four categories: competence, dominance, attractiveness, and approachability. Male candidates were judged to be more competent and dominant while female candidates excelled in the latter two categories.

This finding is not particularly revolutionary if you consider the social roles that are perpetuated for men and women, but it remains frustrating since evidence shows no difference in actual leadership performance. A presence of all four characteristics, implying a mix of gender stereotypes, makes for the strongest candidate.  However high political offices, such as the presidency, are associated with the more masculine traits; and thus those characteristics are favored. Our predispositions about traditional gender roles, and their correlation with power, are at work here. 

So what do these findings mean for women in politics? Well, the study closed on a positive note: “exposure to female politicians has been shown to reduce use of gender stereotypes when evaluating leadership effectiveness as well as overall negative biases towards female leaders.” Thanks to our Secretary of State, and gutsy women like her, these prejudices are starting to crumble and more doors are opening in politics.  Fingers crossed that the White House doors are next!

Images from mediarepresentation.wordpress.com and xfinity.comcast.net

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