Name It. Change It. Study Finds Media Coverage on Women Politicians’ Appearance Negatively Impacts Their Candidacy

by Glynnesha Taylor on May 12, 2013

Hillary ClintonRemarks on Hillary Clinton’s new “glamorous” haircut may cost her the presidency race in 2016, if she decides to run. A recent study shows that when it comes to women in politics, compliments may hurt more than help.

Name It. Change It. has found that women running for office find themselves in trouble when the media comment on their physical appearance. The Women’s Media Center teamed up with She Should Run to research how media coverage on a woman’s appearance has a negative impact on her viability as a candidate. Their project, Name It. Change It., staged a hypothetical horse race between female candidate Jane Smith and male candidate Dan Jones.

The organization presented a series of fake news stories to 1,500 participants. Voters read a profile about the two candidates and then read news stories on each. When the participants didn’t hear about Smith’s appearance she gained 50 percent of the votes. When a comment on Jane’s physical appearance was placed in an article, she lost ground to Jones.

The neutral description, “Smith dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel,” lost her four points. Even positive coverage of her appearance caused her damage. The positive description stated, “In person, Smith is fit and attractive and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heel.” This caused her votes to decline to 43 percent, and negative descriptions decreased it to 42 percent.

“While this appearance coverage is very damaging to women candidates, the male opponent paid no price for this type of coverage,” the study found.

Voters who heard about Smith’s appearance rated her less “in touch,” “likeable,” “confident,” “effective,” and “qualified,” although she initially had the advantage of being in touch and likeable before voters read comments on her appearance. Neutral, positive, and negative remarks on a woman’s appearance all had a detrimental affect on her candidacy.

The study went on to suggest that a woman who remains silent is doing more damage than good. The study showed that a woman who acknowledges these comments regains the ground she lost. Even voters who didn’t hear the descriptions responded positively to female candidates who let the media know that her appearance isn’t news and shouldn’t be covered.

Some women are hesitant to speak out on this issue because they fear that they would be accused of “pulling the gender card.”  However, Name It. Change It. confirms “calling out sexism deters it from happening again. It makes journalists, bloggers, and opposition campaigns think twice before making this kind of negative attack again.”

Name It. Change It. advises that if a reporter is questioning whether or not words may offend or hurt a candidate, it’s helpful to make a parallel with another person or group That is less subject to stereotyping. Gloria Steinem, journalist and cofounder of the Women’s Media Center,  states that the most workable definition of equality for journalists is reversibility. “Don’t describe her clothes unless you would describe his, or say she’s shrill or attractive unless the same adjectives would be applied to a man. Don’t say she’s had facial surgery unless you say he dyes his hair or has hair plugs.”

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