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According to data collected by Political Parity.org, women make up less than 20% of our Congress and hold only six governships. That puts the U.S. behind Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Nepal, for female representation in government!
Why the gender disparity in U.S. politics? A study by American University in Washington D.C. offers Five Factors that Hinder Young Women’s Political Ambition, in the paper entitled, “The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition”:
- Parents are more likely to encourage sons, vs. daughters, to consider a career in politics
- Young women tend to get less exposure (via peers, school and media) to political information and discussion
- Young men are more likely than young women to have developed a competitive drive to win, via organized sports
- Young women are less likely to receive encouragement – from anyone – to run for office
- Young women are less likely to feel qualified to run for office
In this study, both young men and women expressed a desire to bring about positive change in the world, or in their communities. However, female respondents were more likely to consider charity to be the best way to bring about change, while male respondents were nearly twice as likely to think running for office was the best way.
Yet, the study shows that young women are just as likely as men to respond positively to encouragement to run for office. Therefore, early support for a political career, both at home and in school, is a vital ingredient for closing the gender gap in political ambition.
No Better Time
Political Parity.org points out that as we enter the 2016 election year, with female presidential candidates in both parties, “there’s no better time for young women to get involved in our participatory democracy.” The guidelines presented in their article “11 Ways to Encourage Your Daughter to Pursue Politics” offer suggestions easily adapted by educators, such as:
- Talk about politics and ask for students’ opinions
- Watch political TV shows and films in class, especially ones featuring strong female leads
- Encourage students to get involved in their community
- Arrange a visit with a local representative or ask your students to write letters to their Congressmen
We found several bipartisan groups in the U.S. who, like Political Parity, are dedicated to closing the political gender gap. The Young Women’s Political Leadership Program (YWPL) from Running Start introduces high school girls to the power of political leadership, through media and summer workshops.
“We want to make politics more accessible,” said Running Start president Susannah Shakow, in an interview with Campaigns & Elections magazine. “We need women shaping policy because we represent a unique point of view. Men don’t seem to need the encouragement to get involved or to run… I think women need to hear early that it’s appropriate to get involved.”
TAG – You’re It
Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics, founded a similar program, called Teach a Girl to Lead (TAG). “There’s always been the notion that little boys can grow up to be president,” said Walsh. “The more opportunities we can give young girls to think about politics and understand it’s a possibility for them, the better.” The TAG website offers a list of national resources, programs and places where girls can learn about leadership, including leadership through governing and public service.
VoteRunLead (VRL), a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, supports the aspirations of women who want to transform our country and democracy through their participation as leaders. An article from the YALI Network brings us some insight from VRL founders Erin Vilardi and Jehmu Greene, as they respond to questions raised in a YALI social media campaign. In this article, Erin and Jehmu mentioned that the women of Rwanda, China and Italy have better representation in leadership than we do in the U.S., and shared one of their favorite quotes from Plato: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
Erin and Jehmu also pointed out that there are many roles young people can play in politics without necessarily being the “candidate” or the person in front of the cameras. “Behind every good candidate or outward-facing leader is a team of individuals,” they said. “We would encourage you to go and talk with a current female (or male) elected official who represents your area, and ask about the support systems and political infrastructure in place. Specifically, learn the jobs that are behind the scenes that may interest you or fit with your skills.”
Guidelines for Boys and Girls Alike
We close by referring you to an article in Finance that provides a “Guide to Getting into Politics” for young people of both genders. Their advice includes:
- Start by assessing which issues really excite you, and your reasons for getting into politics
- Practice your speaking skills, as well as your knack for remembering names
- Stay abreast of current events
- Know your community – most politicians enter at the local level
- Attend a variety of political events and fine-tune your networking skills
- Be persistent and don’t let yourself get discouraged by hard work or rejection
Educators – Are you interested in encouraging the political and leadership potential of your students? Bring the action directly into your classroom with Envision’s free Chase the Race 2016 curriculum.