Girls are being socialized to lose political ambition — and it starts younger than we realized
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
New research shows that as girls age, they’re conditioned to lose interest and ambition in politics. The opposite happens for boys.
via the 19th
New research shows girls are being socialized early in life to believe they don’t belong in politics.
A research article published this month in the scholarly journal American Political Science Review found that young children perceive politics to be a space dominated by men. Girls’ perception of this is enforced as they grow older.
From late 2017 to early 2018, researchers interviewed children around the country to capture their understanding and interest in politics. More than 1,600 1st through 6th graders were handed crayons and paper and asked to draw a political leader at work.
The children were given open-ended prompts to describe what the political leader is doing in their drawings, what words describe them and what such a leader does on a typical day.
The drawings and responses ran the gamut, particularly for the youngest children. But older girls in particular were more likely to draw people with masculine traits. Research assistants sorted responses by noting whether children drew known political leaders, included clothing like skirts or used pronouns in describing the political leaders. They also coded the adjectives children used as masculine traits or feminine traits. (The study states there are limitations to its use of terminology and does not address gender identity or include nonbinary people.)
Women remain underrepresented in elected office, making up just 31 percent percent of statehouses and 26.7 percent of Congress, but researchers argue it doesn’t have to be this way. Mirya R. Holman of Tulane University, one of the article’s authors, spoke to The 19th about the most surprising aspects of the research and the ways in which early intervention in how society teaches children about politics could make a difference.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Barbara Rodriguez: Why did you set out to explore this topic? Is it underreported?
Mirya R. Holman: This big research team that’s involved are all people that, before starting the study, mostly studied adults. Everybody studies gender and politics, and a lot of us study questions around political ambition: Why are some people interested in running for political office? Why are other people less interested?
[The team] kept having these conversations over and over again — there’s a lot of interventions that we’re seeing that are often very successful in trying to get more women to run for the state legislature level or local office. But we are not seeing dramatic changes in the actual overall level of women’s representation in the United States. By all accounts, we’re looking at maybe 2100 before we’re anywhere close to gender parity if we’re the most optimistic about levels of women’s representation.
We kept thinking maybe this actually starts much earlier than trying to recruit people that are in their 30s. So we set out to try to understand whether or not these gender gaps, in particular, in interest in politics and interest in holding political office, exist already among younger children, and we find that they do.
The research tests this new theoretical framework called “gendered political socialization.” What is that, and why is it important in understanding the effects of girls’ and boys’ interest in politics?
We theorize that as children learn about the world, they go through two processes at the same time. The first is that boys and girls learn about gender in the world. And this is very well established in the literature that boys and girls, as young children and then through primary school, observe how men and women act in the world, and through those observations learn what kinds of roles men and women are supposed to occupy in the world. So if you only ever see women as elementary school teachers, for example, and you’re a young child, you start to think, “Well, this is a role that women occupy in the world. And if I, a girl, am interested in having a role that is consistent with my gender then being an elementary school teacher is something that I might be interested in doing because it’s consistent with the messaging that I’m getting about who belongs in the world.” And we know from gender role theory that there is both internal and external pressures on kids to conform with these gender roles.
At the same time that this is happening — kids are learning about gender — they’re also learning about politics. So one of the things that comes out from our studies is that kids are paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in the political world as early as 6 years old. They know who political leaders are. They know who the president is. They’re learning about who holds positions in the politics world, and through the social studies curriculum … they learn that, “Oh, we’ve only ever had men as presidents,” for example.
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