Despite important gains in women’s empowerment, participation in the job market, and education, women’s presence in politics remains low at just 24 percent worldwide. Women’s participation has been recognized as fundamental for the full realization of human rights and for reaching gender equality; it brings diverse perspectives to policymaking, makes peace processes more sustainable, increases investment in health care, and decreases military spending. One Earth Future’s analysis of what leads to sustainable peace has found that women’s inclusion in political and economic life is a central part of good governance and supports peace through a number of different pathways, including by reducing the risk of armed conflict and increasing the likelihood of sustaining peace agreements over time. The low number of women in politics is surprising given that girls and young women demonstrate higher rates of interest in public service and political engagement than boys. Young women are also 6 percent more likely to vote than young men. This suggests that girls have equal if not more interest in policymaking than their male peers. However, there are still barriers that prevent women from accessing public office.
One important barrier is historical: because women were only granted the right to vote and be elected in the last century, we are not used to seeing women as leaders. When most people think about a president or a prime minister, they likely think of a man (for research on this topic, this article and this article). Formal barriers have been lifted, and women now can vote in most countries, but informal barriers still persist: political parties do not frequently nominate women for leadership positions (more than 70 percent of countries worldwide have never had a woman head of state or government), women have a harder time financing political campaigns, gender stereotypes about women in leadership persist, and women politicians are frequently victims of gender-based violence. The sexist treatment women candidates and politicians receive also affects girls’ and young women’s desire to go into politics: a recent survey of Australian girls and young women found that 60 percent of them were less likely to consider running for office because of the treatment Julia Gillard, Australia’s only woman prime minister, received by the media.
There is also evidence that women and men have different levels of political ambition: women are less likely to see themselves as politicians. This is probably because women are still more likely than men to be in charge of child and elder care, do most household chores, and receive less pay for an equal job. The “ambition gap,” as this phenomenon is called, begins when young women enter college. Girls and boys have equal levels of interest in politics, but their interests begin to diverge as soon as they begin higher education. This suggests that the ambition gap, and gender inequality in decision-making, should be attributed to structural and systemic factors.
So, if girls and young women are interested in improving their communities and doing public service, how can we amplify these interests? How can we help girls overcome structural barriers and maintain their interest in politics?
One of the most important steps for maintaining girls’ interest in public service is to make visible women’s presence in politics. Former Chilean president and current high commissioner on human rights Michelle Bachelet has explained, “As a doctor, when I was Minister of Health . . . little girls would come up to me and say, ‘I want to be like you, I want to be a doctor.’ Now, they tell me, ‘I want to be president.’” When girls—and boys—see women in powerful positions, they transform their idea of a leader. Instead of thinking that just men can be leaders, they realize that women can be leaders too.
Parents, teachers, and organizations of all types can make women’s leadership visible through different strategies. The Swedish parliament has an exhibition celebrating women’s political leadership. The exhibition includes a plain mirror with the caption “This could be you.” Parents can talk to their children about women in power, and there are a number of books and movies that talk about women’s leadership. Likewise, schools can organize field trips to exhibitions and historic places highlighting women’s presence in history.
Other strategies are aimed at building civic skills and interests. Asking girls’ opinions about politics, current issues faced by their communities, and what they would do to solve them sends the message that their opinions matter. Similarly, there are a number of organizations, including the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) and Ignite, that have leadership programs aimed at developing girls’ and young women’s skills and interests in politics. The Teach a Girl to Lead program by CAWP offers numerous free resources for parents and teachers.
Parents have an important influence on girls’ political engagement. Political activities such as voting, canvassing, contacting local representatives, and signing petitions are important experiences that develop a sense of civic duty and teach girls about how governments work. Several women in politics have recalled their experiences knocking on doors in support of their father’s campaigns, being involved with the Girl Scouts, or speaking with their local representative as events that shaped their decision to enter electoral politics. GirlUp, a program developed by the United Nations to strengthen girls’ leadership skills, has a handy list of ways girls can get involved in politics worldwide.
Besides working to end structural and systemic barriers to women’s and girls’ inclusion, it is fundamental to empower girls and develop their leadership skills. This entails both making women’s presence in politics visible so that girls can see themselves as leaders and telling girls that their ideas are important for improving their communities. It also requires reminding men and boys that gender equality benefits us all and that women’s and girls’ voices and ideas deserve to be listened to.