A Study Says Female Politicans’ Fashion Doesn’t Sway Voters Much. Do You Believe It?

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June 28, 2013 ‐ By Kimberly Gedeon
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in one of her famous pantsuits with the Sultan of Brunei  Hassanal Bolkiah. Credit: WENN

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in one of her famous pantsuits with the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah. Credit: WENN

Hillary Clinton is known for her obsession with pantsuits, but she really shouldn’t worry much about portraying a polished, debonair look. A recent study suggests that a female politician’s choice of clothing isn’t too impressionable on voters, reports The Washington Post.

Principal investigators Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless created two political characters for the study: Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson. They recruited 961 adults to read hypothetical news articles that summarized the fictional candidates’ approval of an education bill. After reading their assigned article, the respondents evaluated their fondness for the candidate on a scale of zero to 10 — 10 being the most favorable.

Two of the articles—written the same for each candidate except for names—described the Williams and Stevenson’s attire as “looking disheveled and sloppy in an ill-fitting navy blue suit and tattered red scarf (tie),” the Post said. The results showed that Williams actually had a higher favorability score than Stevenson. It seemed as if the respondents were less lenient with the male candidate’s messy attire.

“When Stevenson’s appearance was described negatively, respondents rated him less favorably in terms of leadership, competence, and his ability to get things done,” Hayes and Lawless said. The woman did not lose points on these additional dimensions when it came to her ruffled look.

For the news articles that portrayed the candidate’s look as “positive,” Williams scored higher points on integrity, empathy, professionalism, and effectiveness.  The male candidate didn’t receive the same increase in ratings. The positive article described the fictional characters as “looking fit and stylish in a classic navy blue suit and fashionable red scarf (tie),” Post explains.

This is not to say that candidates who are women should slump around in sweats, but the study shows that the public do not hold women to different standards when it comes to their attire.

It’s also important to note that newspaper coverage of the fashion choices of a politician is slim; a previous study shows that less than four percent of articles mentioned the physical appearance or clothing of a candidate, Hayes and Lawless explained. “Not only is appearance coverage not especially detrimental to female candidates, but it’s not all that prevalent,” they added.

A Jezebel story took the study to task, questioning whether this study is valid:

If we really wanted declare conclusively that voters “don’t care” how female political figures look, to sniff out how sexism plays out in public reception of politicians, we’d have to evaluate how voters respond to visual as well as print descriptions, and assess the way photographs and footage of politicians are both presented and received on both a conscious and subconscious level.

While fictional female politician Williams may get away with a sloppy get-up, I don’t think we can say the same for anyone else in the workplace. A recent survey from Office Team suggests that 80 percent of executives agreed that an employee’s attire affects his or her chances of earning a promotion.

However, the survey also shows that the perception of funky clothes in the workplace is changing. In 2007, when managers were asked “to what extent does someone’s style of dress at work influence his or her chances of being promoted”, 33 percent answered “significantly.” In 2013, only eight percent answered the same.

Slowly but surely, we might just be getting closer to a society that places less emphasis on superficial attributes and focus more on merit.

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