Yale School of Management

Female Politicians Pay a Price for Power, Finds Study

The perception that a politician is power hungry lessens voters’ willingness to cast their ballots for female, but not male candidates, finds new research by Victoria Brescoll, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, and Tyler Okimoto, a postdoctoral associate in organizational behavior at the school.

"Female politicians are held to different interpersonal standards than male politicians," says Brescoll. "People are less inclined to vote for female candidates if they are seen as political power seekers, but power-seeking perceptions do not affect voter preferences for male candidates."

This voter backlash is one factor that may hinder the career progress of women in politics. Although women have won victories in a number of high-profile primary races around the country in 2010, they still remain underrepresented in U.S. politics. Women currently hold only 17% of the seats in Congress and 24.5% of those in state legislatures.

In the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Okimoto and Brescoll had participants read the biographies of two fictional state senators — one male and one female — with equal qualifications and without mention of political affiliation. Participants were asked to rate how much they thought each candidate desired power and status, and then indicated which politician they would vote for. "Participants who believed that the female senator had a strong will to power were less likely to vote for her," says Okimoto. "In contrast, power-seeking beliefs about the male senator had no effect on voter preferences. Interestingly, both male and female participants reacted the same way."

In another experiment, some participants read versions of the senators’ biographies that included information depicting the politician as "one of the most ambitious politicians" in the state. Again, the power-seeking information made participants less likely to vote for the female senator, but actually improved their likelihood of voting for the male senator.

The authors probed participants’ feelings about the candidates to understand why power seeking elicits voter backlash against female politicians. They found that power seeking does not fit the stereotype of women as communal: sensitive, warm, caring, and concerned about others. "The intention to gain power may signal to others that she is an aggressive and selfish woman who does not espouse feminine values," says Okimoto. "Some voters even felt more contempt and disgust toward women when they expressed an interest in power, like there was something ‘wrong’ or repulsive about their lack of feminine communality."

"These findings are concerning," added Brescoll, "because they suggest that women may continue to be seen as a bad fit for high-power roles, even as they become more equally represented in these occupations."

Read the study "The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians."