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Column: Face It: Women's Looks Matter In Politics

This story was written by Emily Nohr, Daily Nebraskan


Admit it: John McCain could pass as the love child of Santa Claus or any given nursing home resident. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin has a slight resemblance to your seventh grade substitute teacher on whom you had your first crush. Politicians' faces inevitably don't go unnoticed, and we certainly make judgments about them.

How do politicians' looks affect our perception of their abilities to lead? Research from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says politicians' facial images are a great factor in how we vote.

The new study called "The Political Gender Gap: Gender Bias in Facial Inference that Predict Voting Behavior," asked 73 participants -- 38 women and 35 men -- to rate the faces of Congressional candidates from the 2006 election. Participants were given a headshot of each candidate. They then had one second to decide how competent, attractive, approachable and dominant the candidate seemed, based on the photograph. The participant also had to note which candidate they would vote for in a theoretical presidential election.

The results showed that male politicians' faces were rated as more competent and dominant, whereas female politicians' faces were more attractive and approachable. The study also found that competence alone will not give women the upper hand when it comes voting time. Women are expected to be attractive, as well. For male candidates, competence is enough.

What is that all about?

This gender bias helps explain Palin's popularity among some voters and dislike by others. When she hit the national scene over three months ago, Palin awed crowds with her conservative ideology and history of reform in Alaska. But instead of focusing on her politics, attention increasingly was directed to her physical beauty and background in beauty pageants. Voters idolized her trendiness and style -- hence Palinpalooza during Halloween -- instead of focusing on her history of governing and potential to assist McCain.

Her credibility was lost based on materialistic, feminine things -- things that were hardly ever brought up regarding Democraticvice president-elect Joe Biden. Very rarely was Biden brought up in a conversation about attractiveness. Had voters been distracted by Biden's beauty -- sorry, I wasn't -- perhaps he, too, could have experienced appearance-based bias.

Bidendid get some flack about his alleged hair plugs and extraordinarily white teeth, but it did not affect voters' decisions because Biden is a man. Both looks and competence matter for women candidates, but only competence matters for men.

The study found that male voters tend to vote for a woman based solely on looks. Joan Chiao, one of the lead professors of the study, suggests the finding is a "remnant of the legacy of evolution" and that voters "apply gut instincts unconsciously." Is she implying that men really are more shallow than women?

She goes on to say that the "halo effect" -- the idea that prettier people have more positive qualities -- applies only to women. Why is that? Why are women judged by their looks more so than men? Perhaps Chiao is insinuating that men just are distracted more easily by women's beauty.

This leaves little positive thinking for people like Hillary Clinton, who lost the Democratic nomination to Obama. Based on the study's findings,Clinton should look in the mirror for potential reasons why she lost the male vote. It's politically incorrect to say, but maybe she didn't win because she isn't considered "hot" enough for our nation. Even though men's looks aren't as important as women's in an election, people certainly think Obama is a looker. He did achieve that rock star image, after all.

The study's final finding had to do with why voters see men asmore effective leaders than women. It all came down to one thing: facial features.

I'll admit it is easier to look at someone and judge them based on their, well, looks. However, I would hope that our society is not as vapid as this study suggests. Does the general public have to think that someone with a mustache is better suited to lead our country than someone wearing lipstick? Give me a break.

Though America has come a long way with Palin and Clinton being top contenders in this year's election, there is still improvement needed in the way voters view the capabilities of women leaders. There is definitely proof it can be done --President Pratibha Patil of India, Executive President Cristina E. Fernndez Wilhelm de Kirchner of Argentina and Tarja Kaarina Halonen of Finland are all legitimate examples.

Until Americans evolve to accept a way of thinking similar to that of our foreign friends, women will be staying out of the Oval Office. And until there is a woman who is both super smart and super hot, our country will be presided over by the same kind of men: visually competent -- at a glance.

For Clinton, the future is bleak. But if Palin gets a little more knowledge about the world and holds onto the good looks she's been blessed with, look out 2012.

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