J. Maureen Henderson
27 March 2013
The number of women in the Senate may have reached an all-time high, but that isn’t doing much to ignite interest in running for political office among the nation’s young women. New research from DC’s American University finds that college-age women are much less likely than their male counterparts to consider or have considered politics as a possible career path. In a survey of 2100 18 – 25 year-olds, researchers found that young men were twice as likely to report having considered a run for office “many times,” while 63% of young women – compared to 43% of young men – had never considered a future as an elected official. And these gaps exist despite a gender parity in political participation among America’s youth:
“These gender gaps in political ambition are striking because female and male respondents were roughly equally likely to have participated in the political activities about which we asked. From voting, to attending a protest or rally, to blogging or emailing about a cause or issue, to posting about or following a politician or political issue on a social networking site, we uncovered comparable rates of activism. Women and men also held similar attitudes about politics and politicians; female respondents were no more likely than male respondents to hold politicians in low regard, for example. Thus, if attitudes toward politicians and levels of political activity situate college students to think about running for office, then the data suggest that female respondents are at least as well-positioned as their male counterparts,” write Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox, authors of Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap In Young Americans’ Political Ambition.
So, if young women are as politically engaged as young men, why aren’t they aspiring to political careers in equal measure? Lawless and Fox identify five factors that contribute to the political ambition gender gap, including the fact that young men are more likely to be socialized by their parents to consider politics as a career option than are young women, young women are exposed to less political information and discussion than are young men and young women are less likely to think they will eventually be qualified to hold political office.
In the case of the last factor, Lawless and Fox found that among young men and women who didn’t feel as they’d be qualified to run for election after becoming established in their careers, 23% of young men vs. 15% of young women still mulled over the idea of putting their name on the ballot anyway. This finding may reflect previous research on differences in risk tolerance between women and men. In particular, a Texas A&M survey of state-level officials that found women wouldn’t consider running for Congress if they stood less than a 20% chance of winning, while men’s decisions to run or not weren’t influenced by long-shot odds.
A lack desire to become the next Pelosi or Palin, however, shouldn’t be taken as reflective of Millennial women’s overall level of career ambition. Lawless and Fox found robust interest among college-age women for careers in business, law and medicine and, last year, the Pew reported that two-thirds of Millennial women identified having a high-paying career as one of their top priorities, while only 59% of Millennial men said the same. Given that both female educational attainment and, in many urban centers, young female earnings best that of young men, young women are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to chasing their aspirations.
Maybe the new crop of female Senators and the record number of female committee heads will spark an uptick in political aspirations among college-age women, or maybe the next generation of female leaders has cannily surmised that the path to power is more apt to run through the C-suite than the halls of Congress.
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