Over the last several election cycles, headlines have trumpeted the power of female voters and the progress of female politicians.
To be sure, women have increased their power at the voting booth, casting between four and seven million more votes than men in recent elections. However, the hullabaloo made over the advancement of women political candidates is over blown. For example, while the 2012 election was heralded as a “groundbreaking, glass-ceiling-smashing milestone for women,” the actual numbers told a more somber story. Despite the record setting election, women in the 2013 congress held only 20% of the Senate and 18.5% of the House of Representatives. If gender parity is the goal, these numbers aren’t much to cheer about.
Statistics from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University are scarier still. If current election predictions come true, “the number of men in the U.S. Senate in 2015 will be greater than the number of women who have EVER been U.S. Senators;” at least 20 states have NEVER elected a female governor; 14 states have NEVER sent a woman to the Senate; Mississippi and Vermont have NEVER sent a woman to either the House or the Senate. For all the discussion about the rise of women political candidates, progress has stalled out at both the state and federal level over the last twenty years. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that at this pace, it will take over a century for women to make up 50% of congress.
The Obstacles Women Face
Women face many obstacles to entering politics ranging from difficulties getting funding, to a lack of access to powerful social networks, to not being recruited to run as much as men. And on the campaign trail, their qualifications can be questioned. Often their clothing or appearance becomes a bonafide topic of conversation.
What’s interesting about all this, however, is that when women run for office, they are as successful as men. Thus, when it comes to figuring out why there are so few women political leaders, an important issue to understand is why so few women run for political office in the first place. One reason is that in comparison to boys and men, girls and women have lower levels of political ambition.
Last month, the Girl Scouts released a survey of tween and teen girls, which highlights the problem. The survey found that while girls expressed interest in politics, they did not intend to actually become politicians. Eight two percent of the girls said that it was not a common goal among girls their age to want to serve in a political capacity. And when the girls were asked to choose, 61 percent would prefer to be a movie star rather than President.
This survey echoes research by professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox that found a striking gender gap in political ambition between male and female college students. Their survey found that in comparison to young men, young women are less likely to have thought about running for office, are less interested in becoming a candidate in the future, view going into politics as a less desirable career path, and are less confident that they will have the qualifications to run for office one day. For example, male college students were twice as likely as female college students to say that they “definitely” planned to run for office. In contrast, the female students were more than 50 percent more likely than the men to state that they would never run for office. The young women were also 50 percent more likely than the young men to doubt that they would have the qualifications to be a candidate one day. These gender gaps in political ambition were comparable to those found when Lawless and Fox surveyed adults, which indicates that the gender gap in ambition takes root early on in life.
Encouragement is the Great Equalizer
When Lawless and Fox dug deeper to understand why young women have lower levels of ambition, one of the most important factors turns out to be the lack of encouragement. Women college students were much less likely than were men college students to be encouraged to run for office by their parents, teachers, coaches, and friends. While 40 percent of the men reported being encouraged by their parents to run for office later in their life, only 29 percent of the women reported receiving such encouragement from their parents. In addition, women were also significantly more likely than the men to state that their parents would rather have them go into something else besides politics.
To close the gender gap in political ambition, Lawless and Fox urge parents to encourage girls to go into politics. Indeed, encouragement, they point out has the “potential to be a great equalizer.” When male and female college students were regularly encouraged by their parents to think about going into politics, they were equally likely to express an interest in being a candidate one day.
So on this Election Day, in addition to getting to the polls and watching the returns, take a minute to do the following. Look your daughter in the eye and repeat after me:
“You should think about going into politics. You would be an amazing leader. You are way better than any of the people I just voted for. Honestly, I think you have what it takes to change the world.”