2 October 2011

Attributing success to youth and beauty:

A gendered description


Recently, an attractive, blonde, 27-year old politician received significantly more personal votes in the Danish election than the new Danish prime minister. In reporting on this politician's success, the pre-eminent adjectives used by journalists were, "young" and "beautiful". [So much for the Politics – let's just focus on looks, eh?]

At any point during the reading of the preceding paragraph did you picture the politician in question as male? I suspect your answer is 'no'. And you would be correct: this popular politician is Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen. She has dismissed this focus on her appearance as a strategy used by the opposition to explain away the success of her party. The critical question is, would the same strategy be used if a young, attractive male had been the one to achieve this personal political success? I doubt it. When women are successful in a traditionally and stereotypically male domain (like politics), there are many ways in which other people try to take the credit of their success away from their skills, abilities and intellect.

This use of stereotypes to make judgements about people is very common. Social psychological research shows that people expect individuals in certain roles to fit 'the profile' (i.e., stereotype) for that role. I am very often "mistaken" for a student as I make my way across the university campus on which I teach, or when I attend conferences. As far as I am aware, this does not happen with the same frequency to my male counterparts. The most common response I get when people realise their mistake is, "You should be flattered!" When Schmidt-Nielsen represented her party in a televised election debate in 2007, the leader of the Conservative party asked her for coffee, thinking she was a production assistant. So, should Schmidt-Nielsen be flattered that people attribute her success to her looks? No! This is not flattering: it is the biased application of a gendered stereotype that distracts from the targets' hard work. Psychologists have known about this phenomenon for years, but the message has yet to reach a more general audience. Let's start now by saying, "Good on ya, Johanne."

Oh, and incidentally, Denmark's youngest minister, 26 year old Thor Möger Pedersen is decribed as a "big political talent" and "top strategist". No mention of his rugged good looks, then? http://politiken.dk/politik/ECE1410714/sf-udpeger-danmarks-yngste-minister/