Young Women Don't Think They Want to Run

From Valerie Jarrett to Sheryl Sandberg to Marissa Mayer, women are being tapped for more and more high-profile leadership roles. These women have become household names, and their success is promising for those of us who are fighting to close the gender gap in leadership. It is also heartening that we now have a record-breaking number of women in the Senate, thanks to the last election. But we have to acknowledge that the leadership gap is still wide. In fact, women make up only 18.3 percent of Congress, ranking us 77th in the world for gender representation in politics. And that's not going to improve unless we take a hard look at why even today's young women demonstrate a political ambition gap.

Recently, The New York Times article citing the lack of female candidates at the prestigious Andover brought to question, how do young women perceive politics and their role in it?

The findings from American University's Girls Just Wanna Not Run report recently showed that the political ambition gap for young women is just as large as it is for potential professional female candidates and how that political ambition gap between the sexes starts early. The study proves what organizations like Running Start and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) have always known: that young women want to change and influence the world just as much as young men do, but they do not see politics as a way to do just that.

In our experience, girls and young women are very ambitious in their desire to change their communities, the country, and the world. But young women were 50 percent more likely than men to say that working for a charity is the best way to bring about change, while young men were twice as likely as women to view elective office as the best way to be a change-maker. To demonstrate how strong the reactions are to a future political career, the study found that young women were three times more open to being a secretary to being a Member of Congress. Young women need to hear about the actual difference that a woman can make in politics and how underrepresented young women are in our government. Today's major decisions are being made without young women's input; women under 40 make up just 1 percent of Congress.

Further obstacles to young women's political ambition is that they are less exposed to political discussions than young men, much less likely to be encouraged to run for office compared to young men and feel much less qualified to be a candidate.

Our organizations started Elect Her-Campus Women Win to focus on encouraging college women to run for student government to gain the skills and confidence they will need to run for office after college. At campuses across the country we've found student governments very much like Andover, where women dominate the classrooms but are missing from the highest levels of student leadership. Over the past four years, we have trained thousands of students and have increased the percentages (by almost 20 percent) of our attendees planning to run for student government and public office after college. It's important that these young women and many more see the benefits of starting a political career at a young age.

In the last election, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) were elected to the House of Representatives. Both of them started their political careers as the youngest women in their statehouses. Now, as two of the few women under 40 in Congress, Sinema and Gabbard have the opportunity to build tenure to serve on some of the most powerful congressional committees.

While the latest research reports confirm our fears about the future of women in politics, the good news is that we can reverse these trends. It is dependent on each of us to ensure that the young women of our country are empowered to see that their perspectives, skills, and new ideas are needed in the seats of power. If we can change this, young women really will choose to run for office early and win.