Monday, March 10, 2014

The Missed Opportunity: Bridging the Gap Between Girls' Education and Women’s Political Participation

        For the first time in modern history, in many countries around the globe such as Lebanon, Brazil, and the United States, women are graduating from universities and colleges at higher rates than their male peers.  However, a gender gap persists in parity between men and women in top leadership roles of all sectors of society such as business, law, and politics.  Higher education rates for women are often compared to higher labor force participation rates for women, but rarely is the gendered link between education and political participation examined.  Although a pipeline of educated women exists as potentially qualified candidates, this does not automatically translate into parity among elected leaders in parliaments.  With the upcoming UN Commission on the Status of Women, and as the global community strives towards gender equality in the post-2015 agenda, governments, philanthropists, and activists should consider encouraging the civic engagement of young women and girls as a successful and innovative intervention strategy to breaking the glass ceiling for women’s political participation.
            Through Millennium Development Goal Three, the global community has made its commitment to gender equality in access to education, work, and participation in decision-making. Growing consensus in the development community confirms that a best practice for achieving progress toward development goals more efficiently and effectively is to channel investments in gender equality and female empowerment, citing various social and economic benefits that are accrued as both direct and indirect consequence of the advancement of women.  These include but are not limited to decreased violence and increased social stability; local, national and regional economic growth; more inclusive, accountable and transparent governance; improved nutrition and health outcomes for maternal, child and family health; higher education outcomes; more stable and sustainable population patterns; more effective peace agreements; and increased access to enjoyment of equality, dignity and rights.  Gender equality is imperative to achieving development outcomes.   
            As nations have made the decision to invest in the education of its girls, they should ensure these girls are adequately prepared to be leaders in their society and fully contribute their cultivated talents. These educated girls are capable of becoming leaders in the most influential arena in the world — the political arena.  As more women are in positions of power, research strongly demonstrates that social issues are prioritized. Some studies suggest that more women in government promotes higher levels of transparency, lower corruption, higher attention to social and constituent concerns, higher collaboration across lines of conflict and greater investment in development.   A democracy without women leaders is not a true democracy. 
            Scholars in the United States such as Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox report that one of the most significant barriers to increasing the number of women in elected office is the gender gap in political ambition, and that this gap begins at the time women are studying at university.  Among surveys of equally qualified women and men, their research finds that women are much more unlikely to want to run for office. On average, women need to be asked by someone else to run for office five to seven times before they seriously consider their candidacy.  However, when women do run for office, data proves that women win at the same rates of male candidates.  Overall, a main problem is that not enough women are running for office.
            The key to strengthening and increasing women’s representation in government is to encourage young women and girls to get involved in civic engagement leadership and elected to office earlier in life. The earlier a candidate begins to run for office, the better are his or her chances of climbing the political ladder faster.  Nineteen of the last presidents of the United States first ran for office before the age of 35.  Additionally, according to Running Start, over forty percent of the women who currently serve in Congress began their political careers by serving in student government in their youth.  When the path to achieve significant political influence and chair a committee is based on seniority, a candidate benefits from being elected when they are young.  The advantages of beginning a political career early in life cannot be underestimated.
            As the issues of girls' education and women’s political participation are revisited in the post-2015 agenda, the global development community should consider new intervention strategies to promote the civic engagement of young women and girls.  Where student government opportunities exist at universities, gender-specific training programs such as Elect Her can be provided to encourage more young women to run for student government.   Where youth parliaments exist, efforts can be made to ensure equal access for girls such as mentoring programs, internships, and girls' caucuses.  More universities can create Women's Studies programs to give students the chance to analyze systemic and personal gender discrimination.  Political parties can design recruitment programs to develop young women as candidates and encourage them to run for local office.  At an early age, young women and girls need to be introduced to role models and skills to give them the confidence to assume political leadership. 
            Educating a girl needs to include a leadership development curriculum to empower her to serve her community.  Governments, foundations, and corporations have a tremendous opportunity to find innovative solutions to bridging the gap between girls education and women’s political participation, thus creating a more inclusive democracy for all citizens.  Young women and girls are the untapped, capable talent pool eager for the opportunity to solve the challenges of the post-2015 agenda.