We all knew there was a gender gap in politics, but what we didn't know is that there is also a distinct beauty gap. A new study out today from Northwestern University found that looks matter, especially for female candidates. So maybe John McCain made a good decision in picking Sarah Palin? [See photos of Palin and her family.]
Most shocking was the strong language used to describe why men vote for women candidates. "While gender bias related to a female candidate's attractiveness was consistent across both male and female voters, good looks was almost all that mattered in predicting men's votes for female candidates," according to the release announcing the study. (The bold is mine.)
The "almost all that mattered" part is what disturbs me the most. While it's well known that appearance matters, this seems to suggest men vote for only attractive female candidates. In the study, participants were shown pictures of congressional candidates and asked to judge their competence, attractiveness, dominance, and approachability. Aside from attractiveness, these categories are important for leadership and men seem to have won. "Overall, voters perceived the faces of male politicians as more competent and dominant relative to female politicians; female politicians were perceived as more attractive and approachable relative to males," the release says. The dominant part doesn't surprise me. Typical gender roles reinforce that women are more nurturing and therefore less dominant than men. What does surprise me is the competence factor. Why are women automatically deemed less competent? The researchers say it's because of certain facial features. "Gender stereotypes may bias voters to value male politicians over female politicians simply because they possess facial features that signal qualities associated with effective leaders," according to the study.
One of the researchers, Joan Y. Chiao says in the release that "lingering cultural stereotypes" likely drive this perceived competence gap. That seems like a nice way to say lingering sexism. Women serve in elected office more now that ever, but if this study is right and they are elected almost exclusively because of their looks we've got even farther to go than I thought.
Do you think looks impact a woman's chance at holding political office? Let me know below in the comments section.