Aug. 17, 2005
Face the facts: Female pols suffer from "face-ism"
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Successful female politicians face a number of obstacles that don't burden their male peers. One of these, a new University of Michigan study shows, is "face-ism"—a tendency to emphasize women's bodies rather than their faces.
"Portraying someone with more or less of their face showing relative to their body has far-reaching effects on how they're viewed by others," said U-M researcher Sara Konrath, who is presenting results from the study in Washington today at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
"Earlier studies have shown that people pictured with prominent faces are seen as more intelligent, ambitious and confident than people shown with less prominent faces. They're also seen as more aggressive, dominant and assertive."
For the study, Konrath, a doctoral candidate in social psychology, examined headshot photos of all U.S. governors, senators and representatives for 2000-2004. Her collaborators were Norbert Schwarz, a research professor at the U-M Institute for Social Research and the Ross School of Business, and a professor at the U-M Department of Psychology, and U-M student Dave Foldes.
The U-M researchers computed "face-ism" scores for all the politicians by analyzing photos on the same website—www.congress.org. They obtained the scores by measuring the size of the face from the top of the head, including the hair, to the lowest part of the chin, then dividing by the total size of the body image pictured. The result is a ratio expressing the proportion of the person's total image devoted to the face.
Overall, the researchers found, the 504 male politicians had higher face-ism scores than the 84 female politicians. The heads of male politicians occupied 78 percent of their images, on average, while the heads of female politicians occupied 75 percent of their images—a statistically significant difference.
The five women with the highest face-ism scores were Heather Wilson (95), Carolyn Kilpatrick (92), Blanche Lincoln (90), Diana Watson (89), and Sheila Jackson Lee, Olympia Snowe and Maxine Waters—all with face-ism scores of 87. Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi had face-ism scores of 82.
Male politicians with the highest face-ism scores were James Oberstar, John Tanner, Jose Serrano, Greg Walden, Martin Olay Sabo, Tom Feeney and James Moran—all with scores of 92. John Kerry had a face-ism score of 85 and Arnold Schwarzenegger's score was 82.
Whether these statistically significant yet minor differences translate into real differences in evaluations of the politicians' competence is an issue that the U-M researchers plan on investigating in the future.
Comparing differences in the face-ism scores of male and female governors, senators and representatives, the researchers found that there were gender differences in the face-ism scores of U.S. senators and representatives. But the face-ism scores of male and female governors were equivalent. "This corresponds to the prestige of these political positions," Konrath said, "although not necessarily to their actual power."
Konrath and colleagues also found that women who were single and who had three university degrees had the same facial prominence scores as males with those characteristics.
Since the photos on congress.org were all self-submitted, the researchers are interested in looking into the issue of why so many women present "face-ist" photos of themselves.
In the meantime, they have replicated their findings in other countries, including Canada, Australia and Norway, where a higher proportion of women than in the United States are involved in national politics.
Face-ism chart > (.xls)
Contact: Diane Swanbrow