Jul 22, 2010

“Power-hungry” image may hurt female, but not male politicians

Vot­ers will tend to dis­fa­vor a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date who seems “pow­er hun­gry,” but only when that can­di­date is fe­ma­le, a new study sug­gests.

The re­search aimed to ad­dress why, dec­ades af­ter wom­en have won vot­ing rights through­out the dem­o­crat­ic world, there are still rel­a­tively few fe­male politi­cians. In the Un­ited States, just over one-sixth of mem­bers of Con­gress are wom­en, though the cur­rent num­ber is a rec­ord high. U.S. wom­en won the right to vote in 1920.

Dur­ing her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, the po­lar­iz­ing figure of cur­rent U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­la­ry Rod­ham Clin­ton has of­ten suf­fered ac­cus­ations of be­ing pow­er hun­gry. (Pho­to cour­tesy U.S. State Dept.)

A oft-mentioned vul­ner­a­bil­ity in some fe­male politi­cians has been a per­cep­tion of ex­ces­sive am­bi­tion. A much dis­cussed case Hil­la­ry Rod­ham Clin­ton; the Los An­ge­les Times warned in 2007, for ex­am­ple, that a wide­spread view of her as “coldly am­bi­tious” might “doom her pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.”

The re­search­ers, Tyl­er Oki­moto and Vic­to­ria Brescoll of the Yale School of Man­age­ment in New Hav­en, Conn., found in their study that such per­cep­tions hurt fe­male can­di­dates in vot­ers’ eyes, while male can­di­dates tend to be let off the hook for the same per­ceived char­ac­ter­is­tic.

This may be be­cause pow­er-seeking goes against com­mon stereo­types about fe­ma­les, but not those about ma­les, the re­search­ers said. They added that their find­ings might al­so be rel­e­vant to fe­males in pro­fes­sions be­sides pol­i­tics.

“Cul­tural stereo­types de­pict wom­en in gen­er­al as be­ing com­mu­nal—they are sen­si­tive, warm, car­ing, and con­cerned about oth­ers. In con­trast, men are seen as agen­tic—they are dom­i­nant, as­ser­tive, and com­pet­i­tive,” the re­search­ers wrote in their stu­dy, pub­lished in the June 2 ad­vance on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­le­tin.

“Un­like male politi­cians, we [found] ev­i­dence that fe­male politi­cians are ex­pected to live up to a pre­scribed lev­el of com­mu­nal­ity and that fail­ure to meet those com­mu­nal stan­dards elic­its back­lash.” Wom­en who buck the ster­e­o­type “are of­ten de­picted as ‘bitchy,’ ‘selfish,’ ‘ice-queens,’ and ‘battle-axes’,” Oki­moto and Bres­coll wrote, cit­ing past re­search.

Oki­moto and Brescoll car­ried out two sur­veys to an­a­lyze how the stereo­types af­fect politi­cians.

In the first, sur­vey par­ti­ci­pants were giv­en bi­ogra­phies of a fic­tion­al fe­male and male pol­i­ti­cian. All par­ti­ci­pants re­ceived the same two bi­ogra­phies, but for half the par­ti­ci­pants, the re­search­ers switched around which one re­ferred to the fe­male and which to the ma­le. The par­ti­ci­pants were then asked to “vote” for one of the two.

Al­though the fe­male did as well as the male in gen­er­al, the fe­male did worse among vot­ers who rat­ed her more em­phat­ic­ally as some­one with “a clear de­sire for pow­er and sta­tus,” the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found.

In a sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, par­ti­ci­pants again read bi­ogra­phies of a fic­tion­al pol­i­ti­cian. In half of the bi­ogra­phies, the pol­i­ti­cian had the first name Ann, and in half, John. The bi­ogra­phies were fur­ther sub­di­vid­ed so that half of them—for both the male and fe­male case—had ex­tra in­forma­t­ion por­tray­ing the can­di­date as an un­abashed pow­er-seeker. Oth­er than these changes, all bi­ogra­phies were iden­ti­cal.

The ex­tra in­forma­t­ion was that a news­pa­per had de­scribed the can­di­date as “one of the most am­bi­tious” in the state, and that the can­di­date him- or her­self had said: “be­ing hun­gry is ev­ery­thing... it’s key to gain­ing in­flu­ence in pol­i­tics.”

Again, vot­ers pun­ished candidate “Ann,” but not “John,” af­ter read­ing bi­ogra­phies with this in­forma­t­ion, the re­search­ers found. Moreo­ver, in both sur­veys, fe­male “vot­ers” acted the same way as male “vot­ers” with re­gard to pun­ish­ing the am­bi­tious Ann. Over­all, Ann still fared no worse than John, pos­sibly in part be­cause edu­cated white wo­men were over­re­pre­sent­ed in the surv­eyed group, the in­vest­i­gat­ors wrote.

It’s not clear how fe­male politi­cians might count­er bi­ases and get a fairer shot in pol­i­tics, said Oki­moto. An in­creased num­ber of wom­en politi­cians alone may not re­verse the prej­u­dice, they ar­gued, be­cause sur­vey re­sults showed that the bi­as stems from “moral” views of how wom­en should act—not just in im­pres­sions about how they typ­ic­ally do.

It may be that simply bring­ing the bi­as to light will help en­cour­age peo­ple to avoid it, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors sug­gested. An­oth­er pos­si­bil­ity is that “care­ful im­pres­sion ma­nagement [by can­di­dates] may aid in overcoming the bar­ri­ers posed by this gen­der bi­as,” Oki­moto wrote in an e­mail. Brescoll is cur­rently re­searching how suc­cess­ful fe­male politi­cians ma­nage such im­pres­sions. It’s “a dif­fi­cult ques­tion,” Oki­moto added.

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