This project will undertake the first national study of gender and political ambition among high school and college students. Research on women's candidate emergence identifies a substantial gender gap in political ambition that is well-established by the time women and men enter the professions from which political candidates tend to emerge. More specifically, women are roughly one-third less likely than men, even when they are matched professionally, educationally, and politically, ever to have considered running for office. Conducting surveys of a national random sample of 2,000 male and female high school students (ages 13 to 17) and 2,000 male and female college students (ages 18 to 25) will provide an opportunity for a broad, systematic study of the origins of the gender gap in political ambition. Ultimately, the survey data will help identify the initial causes of the gender gap in political ambition, which is a prerequisite to closing it.

Intellectual Merit: A striking gender imbalance persists among high-level elected officials in the United States. Ninety nations surpass the United States in the percentage of women serving in the national legislature. Political scientists have come to conclude that the gender gap in political ambition is one of the most prominent explanations for women's under-representation, and that gender differences in interest in running for office are set in place prior to adulthood. Yet no empirical research has examined thoroughly the link between early socialization and the gender gap in political ambition. Previous work demonstrates that a politicized upbringing triggers and sustains interest in running for office throughout potential candidates' lives. But scholars arrive at this conclusion by relying on individuals' retrospective assessments and reflections of their formative experiences as children and adolescents. Surveys of young people link early socialization to political behavior, such as voting, political interest, and political activism, but stop short of investigating political ambition.

Our project will take the next step in the study of women's candidate emergence and representation. Gaining a full understanding of the origins of the gender gap in political ambition requires surveying individuals at a time that is more proximate to the experiences and patterns of early socialization that affect interest in running for office. The study represents the only examination of political ambition among high school and college students. Beyond this general advance in the study of political ambition, this project will: 1) shed light on the degree to which traditional gender socialization permeates the lives of young citizens; 2) offer an opportunity to examine the extent to which family life, education and peer group associations, and media exposure contribute to gender differences in eventual candidate emergence; and 3) allow for a more accurate prognosis for women's full participation in electoral politics.

Broader Impacts: For normative, theoretical, and practical reasons, it is critical to understand how the gender gap in political ambition emerges. As the first in-depth national examination of high school and college students' political ambition and the gender differences therein, this project has the potential to exert a substantial impact in academia and beyond. Upon completing the data analysis for publications, we will make the data available through the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), where it will serve as a valuable resource for scholars interested in gender politics and political behavior. Outside of academic circles, the findings will provide critical information for policymakers and organizations dedicated to increasing women's participation in electoral politics, as well as those seeking to bolster civic engagement among youth populations. The data we collect will also allow us to provide new analysis and shape the dialogue pertaining to campaigns, elections, and women's representation.

Project Report

Based on our NSF-funded national survey of more than 4,000 high school and college students, ages 13 to 25, as well as more than 100 in-depth interviews we conducted with them, we conclude that a devastating consequence of contemporary politics is the systematic alienation of most young people, which leaves them with no ambition or aspirations to run for office. By examining young people’s political attitudes, life goals, personality traits, media habits, family circumstances, educational environments, and interactions with their friends, we draw several critical conclusions: · High school and college students have little or no interest in running for office at some point in the future. They prefer almost any other profession posed to them. · Young Americans hold the political system and most high-profile political leaders in very low regard. They have few political role models and doubt the integrity and good intentions of the women and men who hold positions of political power. · Young people are interested in helping society and serving their communities. But they do not consider running for office an effective way to achieve these goals. · Almost no one in their circle of influence – parents, other relatives, teachers, coaches, clergy members – encourages or inspires young people to think about a career in politics. · Most high school and college students doubt that they will ever have the skills or traits necessary to run for office. And given their impressions of the political system and its leaders, most don’t want them. · Girls and young women are considerably less likely than boys and young men ever to think about running for office, or to participate in the activities and develop the experiences that spur ambition. In most cases, the data allow us to link each our findings to the manner in which national politics has played out over the past twenty years. Ultimately, the research serves as a vital wake-up call. The political profile we paint of the next generation should sound alarm bells about the long-term, deeply embedded damage contemporary politics has wrought on U.S. democracy and its youngest citizens. When our elected officials cheer failed policies, shut down the government, stymie political appointments as a blanket policy, accuse their opponents of trying to destroy the country, and refuse to govern, they engage in more than hyperbole and hyper-partisanship. They damage the public’s political trust and confidence. And perhaps more importantly, they undermine future generations’ faith in the system and aspirations to be a part of it. We have published these results in a policy report, entitled "Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition," as well as in a November 2013 op-ed in the Washington Post. A paper that focuses on the gender gap in ambition – "Uncovering the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition" – has just been accepted for publication in the American Political Science Review. And in January 2014, we signed a contract with Oxford University Press, which will publish a book – Turned Off: How Our Broken Political System Discourages Young Americans from Running for Office and What We Can Do to Steer a New Course – that presents the aforementioned central findings. Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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American University
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