Big brows may be trendy, but the American public’s sense of propriety gets inflamed if they’re on a female elected official’s face. According to a recent study from Dartmouth University, and published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, female candidates are less likely to win elections in conservative states if their faces have mannish, or gender atypical, features. That includes thick eyebrows, ladies.
In order to see how bias played out in votes, researchers first measured prejudice in clicks. Nearly 300 test subjects indexed 198 election headshots of gubernatorial and congressional candidates from 1998 by gender. This was a quickfire test–and as test subjects were clicking one side of the screen or the other for “male” or “female,” the program tracked their mouse and trackpad trajectories. Election results favored one type of mouse pattern over the other; the more directly the path veered toward “female,” the more likely that female candidate had obtained lots of votes in more conservative areas.
In liberal states, researchers found, gender conformity didn’t affect the electoral results. Yet: “The more feminine female politicians were more likely to win the more conservative the state,” the researchers wrote.
The Dartmouth scientists explained the difference as an outcome of uncertainty. Some voters, they said, simply aren’t that comfortable with “gender atypicality,” or qualities that don’t stick to one side of the gender binary. Other research has shown that conservatives are less tolerant of uncertainty, “which is thought to reflect a relatively rigid cognitive style and value placed on adhering to traditional gender roles,” they note. Liberals appear to care less.
At the same time, even highly feminine female candidates face an awful sort of prisoner’s dilemma in conservative states. Competence, the researchers write, is a traditionally male-associated trait. And in conservative states, feminine features are actually negatively linked to perceptions of competence. It’s a lose-lose, unless female candidates are somehow able to strike a balance between being feminine enough to be likable, and just masculine enough to appear competent. (An incredibly tricky line to walk, if anything is to be learned from reports surrounding the recent ousting of New York Times powerhouse Jill Abramson.)
In the end, researchers argued that this very paradox could explain why there are so few Republican women in office. “Female politicians might fare poorly in conservative constituencies that value more traditional gender appearances,” they write. “Only in conservative states, the more a female politician elicited uncertainty and challenged traditional gender norms, the less likely she was to succeed.”