As elections go into full swing, a body of research on the impacts of candidates’ physical appearances on their ability to win over voters has lit up the media.
In one study, a married couple at Michigan State University looked at 126 Senate candidates in the 2008 and 2012 elections and found that overweight or obese candidates were less likely to be elected or even get on the ballot.
“We found weight had a significant effect on voting behavior,” the study’s co-author Mark Roehling stated. “Additionally, the greater size disparity between candidates, the greater the vote share of the more slender candidate.”
And the study made one other important observation: although overweight women were underrepresented on the ballot, men were not. That means the higher discrimination overweight women face in the workplace, with one study showing women are 16 times more likely than men to report weight discrimination at work, applies to the electoral system.
Another recent study from Dartmouth College shows that voters value femininity in women politicians. In that study, researchers looked at the time it took participants to identify candidates from U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races over the past decade as male or female. Then, participants had to say whether they would vote for the person just based on the picture. Results showed that although chances of voting for a man were the same whether he was more masculine or feminine, feminine candidates were more likeable to participants than women with more masculine features, especially among conservatives.
“Because masculinity is stereotypically associated with leadership in the U.S., conservatives’ preference for traditional gender roles and low tolerance for uncertainty may require women’s leadership aspirations to be tempered by strong associations with femininity, particularly in their appearance,” stated Eric Hehman, a lead author of the study.
The studies do not mean politicians must worry about appearance over anything else. After all, these studies don’t take into account factors that likely take precedent over looks when voters choose who to support, like party affiliation and experience.
In an animation explaining the facial recognition study, for instance, researchers differentiated between South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Illinois gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka. Haley was found to be more feminine (since she was categorized as a woman faster than Topinka), and she won her election by 4 points. Topinka lost hers by 11. But Topinka’s loss is mainly attributed to her campaign’s low ad budget, a third party candidate in the race, and loss of support from conservative Republicans.
Though the new studies highlight the challenges women candidates may face in elections, findings like this could ironically hurt women politicians. A study last year showed that any mention of a woman’s appearance was a detriment to her likeability, whether the mention was positive or negative.
Women make up around 20 percent of representation in the country, with projections that parity won’t be reached until 2121. Women are already less likely to consider politics as a career path or have established networks for raising money. Even though female candidates have been defeating opponents in primaries this year, from Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky to Monica Wehby in Oregon, only 14 women ran in Senate primaries out of 76 candidates. And just five of the country’s fifty governors are women.
The less women politicians’ appearances are discussed, and the more their actual credentials are instead, the better chance we have to close the political ambition gap.