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?