Facial features help female politicians

A US study claims to show that female politicians do better if their face is more obvious ‘feminine’.

The Dartmouth College-led study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science asked participants to categorise the faces of U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections between 1998 and 2010 as male or female.

Software detects tiny movements in a computer mouse to indicate levels of confusion a person has in processing biological and social gendered cues in faces – such as shape of eyes, cheekbones, jawlines and brows, length of hair, and makeup.

The slower the reaction in categorising the gender of a female politician’s face, the less likely she was to have won her election.

Asked to judge whether they would vote for the politicians, armed with no other information than the face, participants were less likely to vote for the women who created the greatest difficulty in categorising their gender.

…Female politicians with more feminine features tend to win elections, while those with more masculine features tend to lose. The mouse-tracking technique further revealed that whether a female politician was going to win or lose an election could be predicted within just 380 milliseconds after participants were exposed to her face.

The researchers use the study to argue that there is:

a discrepancy between traits used to evaluate male and female politicians.

The key finding is that this bias is one indicator of political success – meaning preference for more “feminine” facial traits is probably a small component of people’s judgements.

Let’s look first at why the finding is relatively insignificant, then look at what we can learn from it as political strategists.

  1. It’s a natural thing. This bias is deeply rooted – alongside many other forms of bias. The logical, rational, reasoned, voter does not exist. You might wish it different, but it isn’t and won’t be.
  2. People do not judge each other in a vacuum. In the real world voters use many cues to make their decisions.
  3. Feminine does not equal attractiveness, and attractive candidates have a greater advantage. It does not equal trustworthiness, and trustworthy candidates have a greater advantage.
  4. You can tell a lot from faces. People make judgements from faces because experience (and DNA) tells them they can. It’s effectively an unsophisticated and subconscious form of cold reading. Psychologists are finding that people can spot criminals and good parents based only on the face, are finding that attractive people are more likely to adhere to conservative values (because they think its the way to be seen as attractive).

None-the-less, the study shows that a preference for ‘femininity’ does play a part in voting preferences.

Unless philosophically opposed to using any and all cues to connect with people (which would make for a strange politician) female politicians  should take at least two steps to signal their femininity.

  1. Use official photography that accentuates feminine aspects of their face (softer lighting cuts down facial angles)
  2. Adorn their face with gender-cues such as clearly ‘dressed’ hair and at least one form of make-up.

Perhaps you could simply see it as taking a few steps to look your best.

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