Even if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election in November, the 2016 campaign still could have profoundly negative consequences for a generation of girls exploring their own leadership potential. To be sure, electing the first female president would show American girls that women truly can overcome gender bias and win elections at the highest levels. But they will also have witnessed another truth: They will pay a price for trying.
It’s not just the price of hard work, or confronting the reality that many voters simply aren’t interested in voting for female candidates. It’s also discovering a presidential candidate chose one man charged with domestic violence to run his campaign and another accused of sexual misconduct to help shape its message. It’s a chipping away at women and their leadership potential throughout the campaign from all sides. It’s the high emotional toll taken by glib T-shirts calling a woman running for president typically unspeakable things (no matter who’s selling the product), and the psychological impact of people publicly calling for her murder. It’s that there are no rules of engagement in this election, and certainly no rules of conduct when it comes to gender.
That doesn’t bode well for a generation of girls that already appears hesitant about political leadership. Despite the fact that females today outperform males in school, outnumber them in college and are joining the workforce at an unprecedented rate, recent research suggests that too many girls doubt their ability and the ability of other girls to become political leaders.
A 2014 survey conducted by Making Caring Common, the project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where we are, respectively, director and faculty co-director, found that girls in middle and high school already face biases against their potential leadership from boys and girls alike. In our survey, fully 40 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls stated an explicit preference for male over female political leaders (only 4 percent of boys and 8 percent of girls expressed an explicit preference in favor of female political leaders, with 56 percent of boys and 69 percent of girls stating no preference). Our survey also picked up male and female bias against girls as business leaders, and we found certain types of implicit bias against girls’ leadership from students and from parents.
Teen girls also show signs of “election aversion,” the idea that women run for elected office less often than men because they see other female candidates being treated unfairly. For example, a 2014 survey conducted by Girl Scouts of America found that, although girls saw male and female politicians as equally capable, 74 percent of girls agreed with the statement: “If I went into a career in politics, I’d have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously.” Girls also tended to think that the media treated female candidates unfairly.
In other words, teen girls today not only face biases that impede their own leadership; the gender bias they perceive against others could also discourage them from throwing their hat in the ring in the first place. Put these findings in the context of an election cycle in which women on both sides of the aisle have been publicly attacked for their gender, and the implications for today’s teen girls — and to a society that can benefit enormously from their leadership — are deeply troubling.
But another finding from the Making Caring Common research offers some hope: Awareness of bias may actually reduce bias. The Girl Scouts’ research, too, suggests that encouragement from adults could motivate more girls to enter political life.
What does this mean for parents? Taken together, these findings suggest that parents who are concerned about girls’ leadership can use examples of gender bias in this election as a starting point for an important conversation. In other words: Let’s use this election as an opportunity to include our kids in a national conversation about gender and leadership, to show them that to effectively challenge bias we must examine and confront it.
Parents can start by talking to their children about how and why gender matters when it comes to leadership (it’s important to note here that parents of boys share responsibility for reducing explicit and implicit biases toward girls and should make a particular effort to bring their boys into the conversation). Why do they think that many boys and men might prefer male leaders? Why might girls and women? What types of stereotypes about girls and women are most common, and how can they be effectively challenged? It’s also important for parents to reflect on their own biases and to actively encourage girls to consider taking up leadership roles. (Making Caring Common offers a Parent Toolkit with additional tips for parents and a discussion guide here.)
The next two months offer an invaluable opportunity to help our children recognize how we have squandered the talents of girls and women throughout our history, and the tremendous possibilities in realizing their leadership talents. We owe it to our kids and to our country to help them get there.
Making Caring Common’s gender and leadership research and other research reports are available at makingcaringcommon.org.
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