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

June 8, 2010
Special to World Science  

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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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. A oft-mentioned vulnerability in some female politicians has been a perception of excessive ambition. A much discussed case is 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 Victoria 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 politician. In half of the biographies, the politician had a female first name, and in half, a male first name. 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 the woman, but not the man, 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 ambitious females. It’s not clear how female politicians might counter such 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 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. But “this is a difficult question,” Okimoto acknowledged.