Remember how, during the 2008 presidential nomination race, everybody was always talking about how Hillary Clinton wore pantsuits?
…And reasonable people were kind of annoyed, because we had a viable candidate for the presidential nomination who happened to be a lady (!) and why the fuck was anyone talking about pantsuits?
Turns out that whole discussion was an even bigger waste of time than we thought–because discussion of Hillary’s pantsuits might not have been any more relevant than discussion of Mitt Romney‘s mom jeans. Apparently, voters’ responses to politician fashion is pretty even across gender lines.
A recent study conducted at George Washington University suggested–against our intuition–that female politicians aren’t more hurt by public perceptions of their appearance than their male counterparts. Unflattering coverage does hurt, they concluded, but it “lowers voters’ assessments of both men and women equally.”
The researchers created two hypothetical congressional candidates, Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson. They then wrote eight versions of what seemed to be a “typical newspaper article summarizing the candidate’s support for an education bill.” The pieces were identical, with the exception of the gender of the candidate and a description of how he or she was dressed.
961 adults were then randomly selected to read one of the eight articles (two of which included no mention of the candidate’s appearance), “one simply described a press conference at which Susan Williams announced her support for the bill. The other was the verbatim equivalent, but the candidate’s name was Michael Stevenson.” As for the rest:
The other six articles included one additional clause that made either a “neutral,” “positive,” or “negative” reference to the candidate’s clothing at the press conference. Respondents who read one of the two neutral stories learned that the candidate was “dressed in a navy blue suit and red scarf” (Williams) or “navy blue suit and red tie” (Stevenson). The positive articles described the candidate as “looking fit and stylish in a classic navy blue suit and fashionable red scarf (tie).” And the negative articles portrayed the candidate as “looking disheveled and sloppy in an ill-fitting navy blue suit and tattered red scarf (tie).”
The striking finding is that candidate sex has no bearing on voters’ evaluations. (The findings are the same when we examine vote likelihood rather than favorability.) When Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson are described similarly – whether in neutral, positive, negative, or no appearance terms – their favorability ratings are indistinguishable from each other. Shifts in favorability from one type of appearance coverage to another are also no larger for Williams than for Stevenson.
Granted, they made the “negative” articles sound as though candidates were dressed like Barney Gumble.
But–hey, this is kind of good news (though we’re still pretty curious how people would respond if the female candidate was described as wearing “tight” or “provocative” clothing).
You can read more (and see graphs!) over at the Washington Post.