Study: Voters Judge Female Politicians Based on Their Appearance — But Not How You’d Expect


Do looks matter for women in politics more than they do for men? According to a study released today by Name It. Change It., a joint project of Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, coverage on a female candidate’s appearance can significantly affect how likely she is to get elected.

Fifteen hundred voters nationwide participated in the survey, which followed a hypothetical congressional race between Jane Smith and Dan Jones. Respondents were given a profile of both candidates and straightforward stories about their positions on an education bill. The coverage on Smith included either a positive, negative, or neutral description of her appearance, or no description at all. Articles about Dan Jones mentioned nothing about his looks.

Much of the commentary included in the survey is so out-there that it feels like it could be made up (“Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails.”). But, in fact, it was based on media coverage of the 2012 election.

You’d probably think that unflattering appearance-based coverage would hurt a candidate’s chances and complimentary remarks about her appearance would help, but, as the study shows, that is hardly the case. A neutral comment about a female contender’s appearance (“she wore a purple Vera Wang dress and blue heels”) and a positive one (“the Vera Wang dress looked fabulous on her, the heels even better”) both hurt her odds for election. After reading this, voters perceived her as less in touch, less likable, less confident, and–even though these stories had nothing to do with her political positions or prowess–less qualified. Independents, whose support is crucial in the outcome of an election, were most influenced by descriptions of a politician’s appearance.

“What’s really stunning is, we have dial groups, and you will see the minute you mention appearance, the dials start down,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted the study for the Women’s Media Center, told US News.

Just days after Obama embarrassed himself by calling California District Attorney Kamala Harris “by far, the best-looking attorney general,” and as the media gears up for Hillary Clinton’s (potential) 2016 campaign, the survey is particularly timely. The media can’t get enough of talking about Clinton’s makeup, her pantsuits, and her scrunchies. An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times even used Clinton’s hairstyle as a Magic 8 ball into her decision to run for president: “Hillary jokes that people regard her hair as totemic, and just so, her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention: 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.”

The results, however, had a silver lining: Voters like women who stand up for themselves. When the hypothetical candidate said that such coverage had “no place in the media” and “damages our political debate and democracy,” ratings went up.