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Monday, April 8, 2013

Women, Looks, and Electoral Politics

President Obama's recent comments about the attorney general of California have provided an occasion to review research on the political impact both of physical appearance and media coverage of it.  Elahi Izadi writes at National Journal:
[I]we’re all going to rush to condemn President Obama’s gaffe -- for which he has since apologized -- in introducing California’s Kamala Harris as “the best-looking attorney general in the country" (after he described her as “brilliant,” “dedicated,” and “tough”), let’s likewise rush to stop placing such a high premium on beauty, especially in the realm of politics.
...[P]hysical appearance still matters in elections, plain and simple.Study after study shows that voters tend to back political candidates who look better. In one MIT study, researchers found that appearance played a bigger role in Senate and gubernatorial races than in House ones, which usually feature fewer TV ads.
Some studies show that it’s not just beauty that voters value, but an overall look of competence. In a 2008 study seeking to explain the gender gap in politics, Yale University researchers found voters perceived male politicians’ faces as more competent, while female politicians were perceived as more attractive and approachable. The findings suggested that voters, in turn, view male politicians as more competent than female politicians—even though voters want a mix of both competence and approachability.
Name It. Change It., a joint project of the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, has released two new studies about the challenges facing female candidates:
In the survey on media coverage of women candidates’ appearance, conducted by Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners and Robert Carpenter of Chesapeake Beach Consulting, the research used actual quotes about women candidates from media coverage of the 2012 elections and demonstrates that when the media focuses on a woman candidate’s appearance, she pays a price in the polls. This finding held true whether the coverage of a woman candidate’s appearance was framed positively, negatively or in neutral terms. The second survey, a simulation of the impact of sexism in campaigns, conducted by Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners and Leslie Sanchez of the Impacto Group, simulated a campaign situation similar to those experienced by real candidates and found that where a woman candidate has already been attacked, sexist coverage further diminishes her vote and the perception that she is qualified.
Katrina Trinko writes at USA Today:
Optimally, looks shouldn't affect voters at all. Of course, that's unrealistic: as studies show, a woman's appearance can potentially affect her career success. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, overweight women made $14,000 less than average-weight women, while thin women pocketed about $16,000 more. In contrast, thin men made about $8,000 less, and heavier men made more. And for both men and women, height can affect salaries, according to a 2004 study also published in the same journal.
Don't think this is workplace-exclusive behavior at all: like bosses and colleagues, voters are also influenced by appearance. According to a 2008 study published in the online journal PLOS ONE, while "all voters are likely to vote for candidates who appear more competent," nevertheless "male candidates that appear more approachable and female candidates who appear more attractive are more likely to win votes."

That makes complete sense, as obviously a woman's looks play a significant role in her ability to govern and to promote and pass legislation, right?
Ultimately, we all lose the chance to get the best elected officials when we allow attractiveness (or lack thereof) to factor into our decisions about who should best represent us. It's all too easy -- especially in this cable news era, where we're stuck seeing all these politicians' faces regularly -- to prefer the better-looking.
But when we already have so few women in office (only 20 senators and five governors), the onus should be to downplay the role looks can play, not highlight it further.