Female Politicians' Clothing: Does It Affect What Voters Really Think?

Female Politicians' Clothing: Does It Affect What Voters Really Think?

In almost any profession, how you appear -- specifically, how you are dressed -- makes an impact. But do women's clothing choices matter more than men's?

A new study of female and male political coverage suggests otherwise. For the Washington Post's weekly Poli-Sci Perspective column, George Washington University’s Danny Hayes and American University's Jennifer Lawless examined whether female politicians are hurt by media coverage of their appearances more than men are, as other studies have argued.

But what Hayes and Lawless found proved that clothes matter for both men and women, with negative coverage of their sartorial appearances hurting both genders in equal measure. In other words, voters don't specifically care how women dress. Here's how the research worked:

In our experiment, we created two hypothetical congressional candidates, Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson. We wrote eight versions of what looked like a typical newspaper article summarizing the candidate’s support for an education bill. The stories were identical except that we varied the sex of the candidate and a description of how he or she was dressed.
We recruited a national sample of 961 adult subjects and randomly assigned them to read one of the eight articles.

Two of the articles, one for Susan and one for Michael, contained no reference to the candidate's appearance. Of the six remaining articles (three about Susan, three about Michael), two contained "neutral" mentions of clothing ("dressed in a navy blue suit and red scarf/tie"), two contained "negative" mentions of clothing ("looking disheveled and sloppy in an ill-fitting navy blue suit and tattered red scarf/tie") and two contained "positive" mentions of clothing ("looking fit and stylish in a classic navy blue suit and fashionable red scarf/tie").

The reader responses showed no difference between the genders, but rather that unflattering mentions of Susan and Michael's clothing affected them both negatively. "Like other emerging political science research," Hayes and Lawless write, "we show that voters don’t hold women and men to different standards on the campaign trail."

This new study flies in the face of previous reports, most notably Name It Change It's findings that "when the media focuses on a woman candidate’s appearance, she pays a price in the polls," whether the mentions are positive, negatie or neutral. But that study only examined press coverage of female politicians, rather than comparing the women's coverage to men's.

The Post's Poli-Sci Perspective study, of course, proves that both men and women take a hit when when their appearances are scrutinized. But critics will be quick to argue that women's clothing is actually mentioned more in political coverage than men's is, consequently hurting female politicians more than their male counterparts. As Amanda Hess pointed out, there seem to be far more mentions of women's shoes -- high heels specifically -- found in political coverage than mentions of men's loafers or brogues.

Which could mean, regardless of how much voters care, they are hearing more about women's clothing than men's.

Read the full study at WashingtonPost.com and tell us: Do you think female politicians are disproportionately affected by press coverage of their clothing?

A look at stylish DC heavyweights past:

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