In 2012, the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate reached a historic high: 20 out of 100. And so we continue to debate about the low representation of women in political office, and the debate continues to hinge on the differences between men and women: Some argue that women are unsuited for political office because they’re naturally less assertive and dominant than men; others claim that women are better suited for modern leadership roles because they’re more compassionate than their male peers. But a new study suggests that the public doesn’t associate female politicians with stereotypically feminine qualities at all. When women enter political office, we stop seeing them like women everywhere else.
In “Measuring Stereotypes of Female Politicians,” published in Political Psychology this month, political scientists Monica Schneider and Angela Bos surveyed a group of students about the traits they associate with women in general, and the characteristics they ascribe to female politicians specifically. They found that while over 90 percent of respondents described women as feminine, emotional, motherly and beautiful, they were far less likely to associate female politicians with those traits. Eighty-four percent of participants described women as “gorgeous.” None of them said the same of female politicians. Female politicians didn’t even benefit from those stereotypes — like compassion and sensitivity — that are often cited as potential advantages for women in office. Ninety-one percent of people described women in general as “compassionate,” but only 21 percent described female politicians that way. And female politicians weren’t associated with stereotypically masculine traits — like leadership, competence, confidence, assertiveness and charisma — either. You’d think that “leader” would be a defining characteristic for any politician, but only 39 percent of participants described female politicians with that term; 93 percent of them described male politicians that way. Women in politics were, however, more likely to be described as “uptight” and “dictatorial.”
Meanwhile, stereotypes of male politicians generally fall in line with stereotypes about men in general. The students saw men as competitive, driven leaders, and they said the same of male pols. Only when it came to stereotypically masculine physical traits — like “muscular” and “athletic” — did the perception of male politicians fail to conform to the wider male type.
What is going on here? Schneider and Bos suggest that “despite gains in the percentage of politicians who are female, there may still not be enough women in office for voters to form a consensus of stereotypical qualities.” We don’t know what female politicians are like — we aren’t able to generalize them — because we don’t know enough of them. But the utter mismatch between stereotypes of women in general and stereotypes of women in office also speaks to Americans’ begrudging acceptance of this very low level of women in power. We might be OK with letting 20 women serve in the U.S. Senate, as long as their political representation doesn’t threaten our conception of most women, who are still expected to fulfill their feminine duties of raising children and looking pretty. At some point, you’d hope that the growing representation of women in political office would start to influence the stereotypical traits we associate with all women. But that would require us to actually see female leaders as . . . leaders.
Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science and health. Tweet at her @amandahess.