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Gender cues uniquely predict female politicians' electoral success

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks during the National Council for Behavioral Health's Annual Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on May 6, 2014, in National Harbor, Maryland.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers remarks during the National Council for Behavioral Health's Annual Conference at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center on May 6, 2014, in National Harbor, Maryland.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Female politicians must balance the appearance of femininity along with competence if they are going to win elections in the United States. This is the conclusion drawn from research conducted by Jon Freeman, assistant professor and director of the Social Cognitive and Neural Sciences Lab at Dartmouth College. The research was published in the May 15, 2014, issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. This is the first research that demonstrates a defined preference for certain features in female politician’s appearance.

The average time that it took for participants to judge a woman’s face and make the decision whether they would vote for that woman based solely on the woman’s appearance was 380 milliseconds. The researchers used MouseTracker software to capture the subconscious decision process that 300 participants made in evaluating a female politician’s face. An animation of the process can be seen here. The same software is used to prepare the best ads for new products by testing visual response times.

The researchers used the images of female politicians that had run for office between 1998 and 2010. The participant evaluators were selected at random to provide a representative sampling of the United States. The participant’s reaction to a female politician’s face was 100 percent correct in picking the winner of a given race. The majority of the participants took the test using the Internet so no inherent bias could be attributed to the test population.

Conservative men and women demonstrated a preference for more feminine looking female politicians. Liberals were more prone to accept a higher level of sexual ambiguity in a woman’s face. The most commonly selected cues were shape of eyes, cheekbones, jaws, brows, length of hair, and makeup. Femininity trumped attractiveness. The decision to vote had nothing to do with political competence. The same has been observed in people’s selection of males as leaders.