Girls Want to Change the World...Their Way

A new report from political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox finds a gender gap in political ambition among young people, ages 18-25. More specifically, Lawless and Fox report that multiple factors in men and women’s socialization – parental encouragement, political exposure/engagement, participation in sports, and perceptions of personal qualifications – make it more likely that young men see a political future for themselves than do young women, particularly in elected office. Simplifying their argument in the report’s title, Lawless and Fox write that “girls just wanna not run.” policy reports_girls not run coverBut beyond the catchy title, the findings presented in their report are more nuanced and more important. The report suggests that young women see alternative avenues to making political and policy change, and running for office is not a path on which they can envision themselves. Girls want to change the world, but they have yet to see running for electoral office as the means to that end. Lawless and Fox find that young men and women share equitable rates of activism. However, while young men’s activism may more often lead to a political campaign, their findings show that women view charity work (over running for office) as the best route toward social change. Though the authors cite this as evidence that young women are less politically ambitious than young men, it may better demonstrate that women’s ambition simply differs from men’s in both what they seek to accomplish, and how. The fact that young women expect to make a difference from outside of formal government is not terribly surprising in light of both the current paralysis in Congress and state legislatures and women’s historical exclusion from formal institutions of governance. Forced to take another path toward social change, women have fought countless battles toward equality and justice from outside of our legislative halls – and won. And, if women feel under attack by those who are making laws, it is hard for them to envision seeking  positions alongside them. It’s also hard to knowingly seek entry into institutions where you are so obviously apart from the norm. Women make up less than one quarter of the nation’s legislators – whether at the state or congressional level, only five states have female governors, and no woman has ever sat in the oval office. The absence of women in both men and women’s perceptions of public leaders is further exacerbated by the dearth of women leaders highlighted in history books, portrayed on television or in film, and/or introduced to young people far before and throughout adolescence. Simply put, women are less likely to see themselves in the public leaders to which they are most exposed well before hitting age 18. And, as Marian Wright Edelman rightly states, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In order to encourage women to see public leadership, and specifically elected office, as an effective means toward making the social change they seek, we must provide them with more inclusive images of political leaders. Lawless and Fox prescribe this in their report, calling on organizations on college campuses to “[expose] young women to female candidates and elected officials and [provide] examples of how pursuing electoral office can bring about social change.” We are proud to do this work through CAWP’s NEW LeadershipTM program, a leadership training program that demystifies politics for college women and connects them with female political leaders and mentors. However, this exposure – and challenge to masculine images of public leadership - must also begin much earlier. Our most recent initiative, Teach a Girl to LeadTM, will take on this challenge directly by providing the tools and resources to parents, teachers, and educators to integrate women leaders into the lessons they teach, stories they share, and images they provide to children at all ages. Introducing young people to political information at any age may catalyze political engagement and ambition as they grow up, but exposure is ineffective in encouraging women’s political involvement if that information only reinforces the message that politics and government is a “man’s world.” Instead, providing both girls and boys with more inclusive images of public leadership from an early age has the potential to alter – and expand - their ideas of both who can lead and how public leadership can be an effective path toward social change. This re-vision will go a long way to ensuring that when girls think about how they want to change the world, they see elective office as a way to do it.