05/15/2014 12:47 pm ET Updated May 15, 2014

Female Politicians With Feminine Faces May Have Better Shot At Winning Elections, Study Shows

The Washington Post via Getty Images

As more female politicians vie for seats in Congress and the one in the Oval Office, it's increasingly clear that factors unrelated to their political views affect their chances of getting elected -- from what they wear to whether they shed a tear during emotional moments.

And those may not be the only essentially superficial attributes that matter. A provocative new study links female politicians' facial features with their success or failure on election day -- and it's bad news for women with masculine-looking faces.

"A female politician's success was related to how feminine or masculine her face was perceived less than one half-second after its initial exposure, suggesting that the way a face's gender is rapidly processed may translate into real-world political outcomes," study co-author Dr. Jon Freeman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said in a written statement.

For the study, 300 men and women were asked to view photos of the faces of 198 male and female politicians (winners and losers in Senate and gubernatorial elections between 1998 and 2010) and move a computer mouse to quickly identify them as male or female. The speed and trajectory of each mouse movement were recorded using specialized software designed just for such studies.

What did the researchers find? The more participants' cursors veered slightly toward the "male" button when evaluating a woman's face -- suggesting that the face had more masculine features -- the less likely she was to have been elected. Simply put, female politicians with feminine faces are more likely to win elections.

For both male and female candidates, it also mattered how competent or attractive they looked. The more attractive or competent a candidate appeared to be, the more likely the candidate was to have won, which is consistent with previous research.

But controlling for these factors, the researchers say the effect of feminine facial features on female politicians' electoral success was still distinct. The participants based their perceptions of a face's gender on both "biologically driven cues" (jaw shape, brow line, and lip size) and "socially driven cues" like hair and make-up, according to the scientists.

Intriguingly, for male politicians, no link was found between how masculine or feminine their faces were perceived to be and their electoral success.

"Our findings are consistent with previous research showing that there is a discrepancy in how male and female politicians are evaluated, but what is surprising about our results is that there is a discrepancy in how male and female politicians are evaluated even at the level of their facial features," Freeman told The Huffington Post in an email.

And this discrepancy was even more apparent in conservative states, Freeman said. When he and his colleagues looked at the level of conservatism in the states where politicians were running, they found that the effect of feminine facial features on female politicians' success became more pronounced in the more conservative states. This may help explain a 2012 study that found that Republican congresswomen had more stereotypically feminine faces than their Democrat counterparts.

Conservatives may have "a relatively rigid cognitive style and an emphasis on traditional gender roles" that leads them to vote for female politicians with a traditionally feminine appearance, Dr. Eric Hehman, a postdoctoral researcher in Freeman's lab, said in the statement.

So what's a woman politician to do? Grow her hair long and wear more make-up?

"It’s far too early to suggest female politicians ought to change their campaigns or styles of self-presentation, and much more research is needed to understand the nuances of our findings," Freeman said in the email. "That said, the results suggest a discrepancy in how male and female politicians are evaluated and a possible impediment to the success of female politicians in the U.S."

The study was published May 15 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.



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