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The Relationship Between Sexualized Appearance and Perceptions of Women’s Competence and Electability


Women do not have a uniform or standardized “suit” to wear in the workplace so they must make daily decisions about what to wear. Some propose that women should dress in a sexualized way to gain power and influence, but sexy attire is related to lower perceptions of competence for women in leadership positions. We explored the effect of revealing or conservative attire on perceptions of women’s leadership competence. We also used eye-tracker technology to determine whether looking at sexualized body parts (i.e., breasts, hemline) was related to lower perceptions of leadership competence and electability. A female candidate for a student senate presidency at a U.S. university wearing revealing clothing was perceived by 191 college students as less honest and trustworthy, electable, and competent than one wearing conservative clothing. Sexualized body parts were looked at longer when the candidate was wearing revealing clothing compared to conservative clothing. Furthermore, mediation analyses indicated that the revealing clothing led participants to gaze at sexualized body parts, which, in turn, led to perceiving the candidate as less honest/trustworthy, which lowered their evaluations of her competence and electability. These findings suggest that viewing a woman in a sexy outfit can lead others to stare more at her body and make negative evaluations of her personal attributes. This finding has implications for the choices women make in workplace and leadership contexts.

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Correspondence to Miriam Liss.

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My coauthors and I do not have any interests that might be interpreted as influencing or conflicting with this research. The procedures used in collection of data conform to current APA ethical standards for the protection of human subjects. These procedures were approved by the institutional review board of the University of Mary Washington. We also certify that the manuscript is not under review elsewhere and has not been previously published elsewhere in whole or in part.

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Smith, J.K., Liss, M., Erchull, M.J. et al. The Relationship Between Sexualized Appearance and Perceptions of Women’s Competence and Electability. Sex Roles 79, 671–682 (2018).

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  • Eye-tracking
  • Competence
  • Female workplace attire
  • Sexual attire
  • Person perception
  • Electability