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Women Hold Only 1 in 4 Elected Offices in the U.S. — but Schools Can Help Close That Gender Gap

Photo Credit: Getty Images

June 14, 2017

Talking Points

Why #women aren’t running for public office, and how education can help

Just 1 in 4 U.S. elected offices is held by women — why #schools and student government can help

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Although female political activism is perhaps at an all-time high in the U.S., only 1 in 4 elected offices is held by a woman.
A new Politico piece reports that when it comes to gender equity in national legislatures, the U.S. ranks 101st in the world, behind China and Afghanistan, down from 52nd in 1997. The report points out that while women win elections at around the same rate as men, they’re less likely to run in the first place: “America has a shortage of female politicians because, to put it simply, women don’t want the job.”
Much of this boils down to a child’s early years, according to the report, citing a 2012 survey that found parents have the most influence over a child’s political aspirations. Men received more encouragement than women to enter politics not only from their parents but also from friends and teachers.
The gap between male and female political ambition also widens in college. Much support for women in politics is currently backloaded, often in the form of campaign donations when female candidates are already running for office. Closing this gap requires encouragement and education on the front end, to get women to start thinking when they are young about running for office.
Studies show that women who run for student government in school are more likely to express interest in politics later in life. Even though more women than men attend and graduate from college, female students comprise only 30 percent to 40 percent of student body presidents across American campuses.
Women now make up 19.4 percent of members of Congress, 24.9 percent of state legislators, 12 percent of governors, and about 20 percent of mayors, according to the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics — meaning that less than a quarter of elected offices, on average, are held by women.
There is one type of elected body, however, in which men and women are pretty equally represented: school boards. But most female school board members don’t strive for higher office once their term is over: “They get the best political training in America, and then they go home,” Politico reports.
So educational initiatives are targeting women early. Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics offers a Ready to Run campaign training workshop that saw peak interest this year. And Politico shines a spotlight on Running Start, a Washington, D.C., organization that teaches young women in high school and college about politics and coaches them to run for student government.
In 2016, female college students who took part in Running Start were reportedly 65 percent more likely to express confidence in running for public office later.
“Just telling them to run is good,” Running Start president and founder Susannah Wellford told Politico. “But you need to really get into the psychology of why it is still so daunting.” With even more resources, Wellford said, she’d offer political training to girls even earlier — in middle school.