The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters don’t care how women in politics look

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Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hayes and American University's Jennifer Lawless looks at whether female candidates are hurt when the press covers their appearance. For past posts in the series, head here.

Of late, the press's tendency to cover the style choices of women in politics has attracted a bit of controversy.

Critics lambasted as sexist both a New York Times story about the purses (and “purse boys”) of women in Congress and a Washington Post article about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s stylish shoes. These pieces seemed to underscore the urgency of a much-publicized report by the organization “Name It. Change It.,” which showed that when the media focus on female candidates’ appearance, voters are less likely to support them.

But a recent study we conducted suggests otherwise. We find that women don’t pay a higher price than men for coverage of their appearance. Unflattering coverage does hurt, but it lowers voters’ assessments of both men and women equally. Like other emerging political science research, we show that voters don’t hold women and men to different standards on the campaign trail.

In our experiment, we created two hypothetical congressional candidates, Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson. We wrote eight versions of what looked like a typical newspaper article summarizing the candidate’s support for an education bill. The stories were identical except that we varied the sex of the candidate and a description of how he or she was dressed.

We recruited a national sample of 961 adult subjects and randomly assigned them to read one of the eight articles. Two articles included no mention of the candidate’s appearance. One simply described a press conference at which Susan Williams announced her support for the bill. The other was the verbatim equivalent, but the candidate’s name was Michael Stevenson.

The other six articles included one additional clause that made either a “neutral,” “positive,” or “negative” reference to the candidate’s clothing at the press conference. Respondents who read one of the two neutral stories learned that the candidate was “dressed in a navy blue suit and red scarf” (Williams) or “navy blue suit and red tie” (Stevenson). The positive articles described the candidate as “looking fit and stylish in a classic navy blue suit and fashionable red scarf (tie).” And the negative articles portrayed the candidate as “looking disheveled and sloppy in an ill-fitting navy blue suit and tattered red scarf (tie).”

After reading the article, respondents were asked to rate – on a scale from 0 to 10 – how favorably they viewed the candidate, and evaluate the candidate in terms of professionalism, leadership, competence, empathy, and other traits. In the figure below, we present the average favorability ratings for each of the conditions.

The striking finding is that candidate sex has no bearing on voters’ evaluations. (The findings are the same when we examine vote likelihood rather than favorability.) When Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson are described similarly – whether in neutral, positive, negative, or no appearance terms – their favorability ratings are indistinguishable from each other. Shifts in favorability from one type of appearance coverage to another are also no larger for Williams than for Stevenson.

To be sure, respondents rated the candidates less favorably when their appearance was described as “disheveled and sloppy” with “ill-fitting” and “tattered” clothes. But Williams wasn’t penalized any more than was Stevenson.

If anything, negative appearance coverage was a bigger problem for the male candidate. When Stevenson’s appearance was described negatively, respondents rated him less favorably in terms of leadership, competence, and his ability to get things done. Williams paid no price on these additional dimensions.

Williams also did not take a hit when her appearance was described in positive terms. She actually received slightly higher ratings on integrity, empathy, professionalism, and effectiveness than when her appearance was not mentioned at all. Stevenson received no such boost.

Several things might explain why our findings differ from the “Name It. Change It.” study. First, their news stories included references to the makeup and clothing of only the female candidate. Their experiment never compared female appearance coverage to male appearance coverage.

But such a comparison is important not only because good social science demands it, but also because the media discuss male politicians’ looks too. There’s the “central-casting appearance” of the “strapping” Gabriel Gomez, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Massachusetts. There are Rep. Paul Ryan’s billowing suits and bulging biceps. And of course there’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s waistline, whose fluctuations garner almost as much attention as the Consumer Price Index. Appearance coverage is not restricted to female candidates, so an analysis of its effects shouldn’t be either.

Second, our experiment held constant everything about the candidates except their sex and the description of their appearance. The candidates’ political experience, issue positions, and backgrounds were identical. That allows us to attribute any gender differences in evaluations to the appearance coverage.

The candidates in the “Name It. Change It.” study, however, varied in multiple ways: their marital status (she was divorced; he was married), issue positions (she focused on the economy and crime; he emphasized immigration, energy independence, the economy, education, and health care), and political experience (they served different lengths of time in the state legislature). With so many differences between the candidates, it is impossible to know whether gender differences in candidate assessments were a result of media coverage.

Third, our descriptions of candidate appearance were a bit more subtle – and, we’d argue, more realistic – than were those developed by “Name It. Change It.” Their negative appearance article, for example, reported that the female candidate “sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines” and had “famous fake tacky nails.”

It’s hard to imagine how language like this would not affect a voter’s assessments of the candidate. But it is just as difficult to envision a scenario in which sentences like these would pass muster with an editor and regularly make their way into mainstream news outlets (which remain the most influential political news source during House campaigns).

In fact, news coverage that includes any reference whatsoever to a candidate’s appearance is unusual. In a previous study of the 2010 midterms, we conducted a detailed analysis of local newspaper coverage of U.S. House races in nearly 350 congressional districts. Overall, fewer than 4 percent of the articles mentioned a candidate’s physical appearance, style of dress, clothing, or hair and makeup. And those that did were just as likely to be describing a man as they were a woman. Not only is appearance coverage not especially detrimental to female candidates, but it’s not all that prevalent.

We’re not the only political scientists to find that voters judge men and women in politics in very similar ways. In a new book, Deborah Brooks shows that women who act tough, get angry, or even cry on the campaign trail aren’t viewed any differently than men who do the same thing. And Kathleen Dolan has found that voters’ evaluations of congressional candidates—male or female—are driven largely by party affiliation, not gender stereotypes.

We are by no means suggesting that gender is irrelevant in electoral politics, or that women’s numeric under-representation is a thing of the past. The gender gap in political ambition is substantial and static. Women are less likely than men to think about running for office. They are less likely to consider themselves qualified to run. And they are less likely to report having been recruited to enter the political arena. The irony of the “Name It. Change It.” study is that it could further discourage women from running by making them think (erroneously) that the media and, therefore, the voters, care only about how they dress.

The real barriers that women face are formidable. But while women are surmounting them, our research suggests that they won’t have to worry about what they’re wearing.