Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton are not similar people. The people they appeal to, the way they dress, what they believe about politics and policy, could not be further away from one another. But they do have something in common: They're successful female politicians. (Yes, we can debate over how we define the term "successful" here. But at the very least, both were voted by a state's electorate to a prominent role — governor for Palin, senator for Clinton.)
But it's not so easy to conjure up an image of a female politician. While male leaders are easily labeled "ambitious," or "competitive," female leaders evade a consistent stereotype. Clinton and Palin might be an extreme illustration of this idea, but recent research suggests it's true of female politicians at large.
"Voters seem to be ambivalent towards female politicians and to have ill-defined ideas about what it means to be a female politician," write political scientists Monica C. Schneider and Angela L. Bos, in the latest issue of the Journal Political Psychology. "Despite gains in the percentage of politicians who are female, there may still not be enough women in office for voters to form a consensus of stereotypical qualities."
Take a look at their chart below; the differences are clear. While 93.5 percent of the study's participants described women as "feminine," only 45.1 percent used the same term to describe female politicians. Similar gaps exist for terms such as "emotional," "caring," and "compassionate."
Male politicians, on the other hand, share many more stereotyped qualities with men in general.
The data suggests our stereotypes of female politicians are based on what they lack in comparison to women as a whole, not what they have in addition. "The stereotypes are extremely nebulous and lack clarity," the authors conclude.
But it's not the case that the lack of stereotypes give female politicians an advantage:
We can see that female politicians are defined more by their deficits than their strengths. In addition to failing to possess the strengths associated with being women (e.g., sensitive or compassionate), female politicians [are seen to] lack leadership, competence, and masculine traits in comparison to male politicians.
So what are the implications? One is academic. The authors suggest that "current measures of stereotypes of female politicians are based on a questionable assumption--that female politicians are similar to women."
Another is a broader understanding of how people choose leaders. Stereotypes are powerful. When we go to the polls, we go with stereotypes. Brief glances at candidates' faces can predict national elections. Women, while ascending to elected positions in government in greater and greater numbers, are still underrepresented. Understanding the roadblocks to parity in top offices may help us redefine the stereotypes that keep the status quo.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.