In the United States, women show less interest in politics and run lower in political office than men. These gaps threaten democracy because they distort representation: women make up 26.7% of Congress members and 31% of state legislators, despite making up 50.8% of the population.
Such imbalances threaten the core values of representative democracy, such as fairness, inclusiveness and equality. They diminish the quality of the policies pursued by the political authorities.
Likewise, although women make up the majority of college students, they run and hold fewer student government positions.
Our research team has spent a lot of time exploring these gaps, based on research that shows that lack of representation is due to the fact that women are less interested in politics and less likely to run for office than men.
Organizations such as Emerge America and Ready to Run are addressing this problem by training women to run for public office and Money for women candidates, even though there remain a shortage of funds and resources between the men and women running for office.
We asked: What if these differences in political interests and ambitions begin at a much earlier age?
Drawings help tell a story
We set out to find out if gender differences were in the interests of even in elementary school by interviewing and interviewing over 1,600 children in grades one through six.
Talking to children about politics is not an easy task. Many young children are not familiar with political parties or terms such as “Congress” or “Supreme Court.” Therefore, we have developed a new tool: the “Draw a political leader” prompt.
Inspired by Draw a Scientist in STEM Gender Gap Research — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math — we asked children to draw an image of a political leader. We asked our young respondents to tell us what the leaders are doing in their photographs and describe their characteristics.
We also asked these children about their interest in politics and varied careers, including whether they want to take up political office when they grow up.
We use these images and polls to understand how children learn about both politics and gender roles, or what scholars call “gender political socialization.”
A third grader drew a picture of Donald Trump. “He’s giving a speech that says we must arrest Hillary Clinton,” he wrote. We asked: What do you think a leader does on a typical day? “Go to the news, go to the Court.” What he thought of the leader: “ass”.
A 7-year-old girl drew the mayor who “talks”. And what does she think a leader does on a typical day? “Talking, talking, talking doesn’t do anything else.”
By observing the behavior and expectations of men and women in society, young children come to understand that each gender usually plays a specific role in society, for example, women are teachers and men are firefighters.
Children also learn about politics during this time through lessons that often focus on key events and leaders in US history and that focus almost exclusively on men. The fact that these two processes – the study of gender and the study of politics – occur simultaneously, contributes to the understanding of children that the political world is dominated by men.
Our research shows that with age, girls increasingly perceive political leadership as a “man’s world.” One way to show this is to look at the drawings children have made of what they think political leaders look like.
Three-quarters of boys draw a man when they draw a political leader, regardless of age. In comparison, girls in primary school increasingly see men as political leaders. Less than half of the youngest girls in our study — first and second graders — draw women leaders. By high school, only about a quarter of girls paint women.
We also demonstrate that children’s participation in politics and the likelihood of attracting a prominent political leader like Trump or Barack Obama increases with age.
Along with gender and age trends in recruiting political leaders, our research shows that as young children learn about politics and politicians, they internalize the idea that politics is the world of men.
One result of the mismatch between women’s roles and politics: girls show lower levels of interest and ambition in politics than boys.
As girls enter adolescence, when peer influence increases and their preference is given to preference over singling out, they avoid politics. As the continuing gap in the number of women in office shows, when girls turn their backs on politics, many do not back down.
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What does this mean for politics?
The roots of gender inequality in politics go back to childhood. These roots arise from many factors: how children learn about gender roles and politics in class, how their parents discuss political events, and how the media portrays politics.
The increase in the number of women who run and hold elected office depends on what parents, teachers and the media portray as so-called “normal” for different genders.