Why Are Young Women Falling So Far Behind In The ‘Ambition Gap’?

A new study by the American University of Public Affairs confirms something you probably already realized from surveying our current political landscape- that men hold far more elective offices than women (despite the fact that when women run, they are just as likely to win.) The study focused on young people ages 18-25, and surveyed their interest in ever running for office. Results found that young men were TWICE as likely to respond they definitely planned on running for office as women. It gets worse: when surveyed about job positions in general, THREE TIMES as many women expressed being open to being a secretary as were open to being a member of Congress.


Why is this? The authors identified 5 factors:

1. Young men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path.

2. From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men.

3. Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning.

4. Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office –from anyone.

5. Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even once they are established in their careers.

What can we do to remedy this situation? It starts with making sure parents, teachers, and media are sending the message to girls that fields like politics, science, and business are open to girls, too. It means making sure girls have mentors and people they look up to who encourage them and make sure they know what they are capable of. It means dealing with the confidence gap that plagues women not just in politics, but in all career fields.

We also need to stop sabotaging ourselves. As Rachel Simmons details in this excellent blog post on college women and the confidence gap:

In a 2011 Princeton University study of its undergraduates, researchers discovered a host of psychological barriers curbing women’s campus participation and potential. Although Princeton women were enthusiastically engaged in extracurricular and academic work, they chose jobs in organizations that kept them squarely out of the spotlight. They also made self-deprecating remarks, undersold themselves, spoke up less in class and were unlikely to put themselves up for awards or fellowships without special encouragement.

It’s clear women face intense societal pressure that men do not, and it is impacting how much we put ourselves forward:

The women also reported juggling ruthless cultural expectations of how women should look and act. “[We] are supposed to be smart, involved in many different activities, and also pretty, sexy, thin, nice, and friendly,” as one woman said. “Women are expected to be poised, witty, and smart,” said another, “but not so witty or smart as to be threatening to men.”

The good news is that the factors that are limiting young women’s leadership can be overcome. The AU study found women are just as likely to respond to encouragement to run for political office as men. We can make sure girls feel capable of becoming leaders, and the more girls that do, the more will be encouraged to follow in their footsteps.


Want to help girls in Austin fight the ambition gap? Here are some ways to get started:

Spread the word about this Saturday’s “Sweet Success: Girls Minding Their Own Business” Workshop, designed to allow middle and high school girls meet with female business leaders and explore an entrepreneurial career.

Bring a GirlTalk or GirlConnect workshop to your daughter’s school or group, and help build their confidence in a fun, energizing way

Model female leadership yourself by volunteering for Career Week or another of our upcoming events. Just email celeste@genaustin.org to get involved!


Vanessa Wright