The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians

When female politicians are perceived to be power-seeking, voters react negatively with feelings of moral outrage.


In an effort to address the persistent gender gap at the highest levels of political office, this study investigates one of the stereotype-based social costs that women face as political candidates. Because power and power-seeking are central to the way masculinity is socially constructed and communality is central to the construction of femininity, intentionally seeking power is broadly seen as anti-communal and inconsistent with the societal rules for women’s behavior. The study aims to determine whether women political candidates who are seen to be seeking a political office as a means to gain power will be penalized for their seeming lack of communality. More specifically, the authors suggest that women’s power-seeking will evoke emotional reactions of contempt and disgust and therefore voters will be less likely to support their candidacy.


Voters are less likely to vote for female politicians when they perceive them as power-seeking, though male politicians are not penalized.

  • All things being equal, study participants were likely to perceive female politicians as being just about equally power-seeking as male politicians.
  • When participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having greater agency (i.e., being more assertive, stronger, and tougher) and greater competence, while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking female politicians. 
  • When participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., being unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians.
  • When female politicians were described as power-seeking, participants experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them.
  • Participant gender had no impact on any of the study outcomes – that is, women were just as likely as men to have negative reactions to power-seeking female politicians.

In short, both a power-seeking image and expressed power-seeking intent can bias voters against female politicians.


The first study was conducted with 80 respondents (53 women and 27 men) between the ages of 19 and 63.  They were recruited and participated in the study online.  Researchers created website biography pages for two Oregon state senators, identical in format to those of real state senators, including information about career histories, committee service, and educational background.  The names and genders on each biography were altered so that each described a male politician half the time and a female politician half the time.  Study respondents reviewed the biographies and then answered questions indicating how much desire for power they thought each candidate exhibited and which candidate they would vote for.

The second study was conducted with 230 respondents (78 men and 152 women) between the ages of 18 and 76.  They were recruited and participated in the study online.  Researchers created one website biography of an Oregon state senator, similar to those created for the first study.  The biography was altered along two manipulated variables: the name and gender of the politician were changed so that half were male and half were female; and half the biographies for each gender contained two additional sentences indicating that the politician described was exceptionally power-seeking.  Study respondents reviewed their biography and then answered questions indicating how likely they were to vote for that senator; how much agency, communality, and competence they perceived in him/her; and what kinds of emotions they felt towards the senator.

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