When it comes to politics, appearances matter. A lot. Especially for female politicians.
While research (and common knowledge) has shown that attractive candidates are more likely to get votes, a new Dartmouth-led study takes this idea further: how do voters respond to feminine versus masculine facial features?
The study found that many voters prefer female politicians with feminine features, especially in conservative areas. Female candidates with traditionally masculine features — strong jawline, prominent brow, short hair — fared worse at the ballot box.
"Female politicians are treated differently than male politicians based on their facial features, even at the most spontaneous level," said the study's senior author, Jon Freeman, an assistant professor and director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab at Dartmouth.
Translation: women are the ones being judged on their looks. When it came to male politicians, it didn’t matter whether they had more masculine or feminine features.
Photos were cropped to show only a politician's face and hair, gray-scaled, and standardized for size.
The study was like a political version of Hot or Not. Participants would sit down at a computer and the faces of real-life candidates — the winners and runners-up in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections between 1998 and 2010 — would pop up on the screen.
After the face appeared, the 300 participants would then use a mouse to click on the word “female” or “male.”
Apparently it doesn’t take people long to decide if a woman looks manly or womanly — just 380 milliseconds per image. Here’s the interesting part: the female candidates who were identified as feminine tended to be the real-life electoral victors. So when the participants were choosing more feminine faces, they were also predicting the winners.
"These findings suggest that the way a face’s gender is rapidly processed may translate into real-world political outcomes," Freeman told Fusion.
Participants categorized the gender of a face by moving the mouse from the bottom-center of the screen to the top corners.
The new study highlights the differences in how male and female politicians are evaluated by voters, even at the most basic level. Aside from facial features, there are other factors that contribute to the discrepancy in how male and female politicians are judged.
There is a possibility that the media plays into these perceptions; a 2013 study found that news coverage of female politicians focuses on personality while coverage of males focuses on the issues.
"It's far too early to suggest female politicians ought to change their campaigns or styles of self-presentation," Freeman said. "But this work does raise awareness that gendered facial cues may be having an impact uniquely on the electoral success of women."
Alexandra DiPalma is a producer for Fusion Lightworks, Fusion’s In-house Branded Content Agency.