From Clinton to Gillibrand, Research Shows We See Female Politicians As ... Not That Feminine

What would you say the main differences are between Hillary Clinton and a female bank teller? What about between Condoleezza Rice and a female chef? Nancy Pelosi and a female publicist? Kelly Ayotte and a female astrophysicist? Or, Kirsten Gillibrand and a female neurosurgeon?

If you answered that the female politicians are less likely to be perceived as possessing stereotypical female traits, you might be right.

In a recent study, “Measuring Stereotypes of Female Politicians,” published in Political Psychology, political scientists Monica C. Schneider and Angela L. Bos argue that female politicians are more likely to be perceived as lacking traditional female traits. And, rather than being viewed as possessing different character traits (i.e. those stereotypically found in strong leaders and/or traits thought of as traditionally masculine), they are also viewed as lacking stereotypical masculine traits such as ambition, motivation, and charisma. In contrast, the study found that male politicians are more likely to be described as possessing the same  traits of men in general.

By looking at the chart from their study below, it's clear that the ways we view women in general vs. women in politics couldn’t be more different:

 

 

While women in general are more likely to be described as “feminine,” “caring,” or “compassionate,” female politicians were significantly less likely to be described as such. And, some of the strongest differences in the way our society views women in general vs. female politicians lies — not surprisingly — in how we describe them physically. While 95.7% of respondents used the trait “beautiful,” 87.0% used “pretty,” and 84.8% used “gorgeous” to describe women in general, only 11.8%, 5.9%, and 0.0% of the respondents used “beautiful,” “pretty,” and “gorgeous” to describe female politicians respectively.  

Additionally, respondents failed to provide a consistent sample of traits that they would strongly associate with female politicians. “Voters…have ill-defined ideas about what it means to be a female politician,” according to the study, despite an increase in the number of highly visible female politicians in recent decades. Male politicians, in contrast, were consistently described as “educated,” “driven,” “well spoken,” and “ambitious,” by the majority of respondents. 

What does it mean that as a society we do not have a clear vision of what traits most strongly define a female politician? What opportunities does this create for women to define themselves as politicians? And, what hurdles does it place in their way? 

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Tracey Vitchers

Tracey is a feminist blogger for PolicyMic.com. Previously, Tracey wrote for The Huffington Post and Feministing's Community Blog. Her articles have been featured in Potentia Magazine, Feministing's Daily Feminist Cheat Sheet, and the Women's Campaign Fund newsletter. She has been quoted by MSNBC for her work with Students Active For Ending Rape (SAFER) and was featured on The Sean Hannity Show for her coverage of the Occupy Movement in September 2011. Tracey holds a Bachelor of the Arts in Women's Studies and English from Williams College and a Masters of the Arts in Comparative Women's Studies from Utrecht University. She has worked with numerous nonprofit organizations in project management, business development, communications, and public relations capacities. In her free time Tracey enjoys hiking with her dog, assembling Ikea furniture, and drinking coffee. Tracey works in New York City, but lives in the woods of Pennsylvania.

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