CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
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Women are Committed Civic Actors but We Still Have Much to Go

May 6th, 2013
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This is the first in a series of posts about women and civic engagement. Last Monday, CIRCLE Lead Researcher, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, spoke at a White House conference on girls’ leadership and civic education. The purpose of the conference was to discuss how to close the gender gap in public leadership by educating and engaging young people. Stay connected to CIRCLE for more on this topic later this week. Here is an overview of Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg’s comments at the White House:

Just decades ago American women and girls suffered from grave inequity access to education and workplace.  This narrative has shifted a lot thanks to tireless advocacy and activism of many people.  Now, women have achieved parity or near parity in many sectors and girls are ahead of boys in many academic subjects and college completion rates.

Girls and young women are also committed civic actors and are ahead of their male counterparts on many indicators of civic engagement, including volunteering, membership in community associations, and voting.  Female college students are far more likely to spend large number of hours on volunteer service, take service learning courses, and value helping others in need more strongly than male students.  After college, women are overrepresented in intensive service programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics test results indicate that girls perform as well as, if not better than, boys on civic knowledge tests.

Yet, research by the Center for American Women and Politics and others makes it clear that women are grossly underrepresented among our elected officials. We also find the same pattern of high achievement and underrepresentation in leadership in business, law, and higher education.  On one hand, we have girls and women who are high civic achievers and yet, young girls are still growing up seeing few faces like theirs among our leaders today.

We identify five relevant gaps that may contribute to the gender leadership gap:

1.  Interest Gap

Young women are much less interested in become engaged through politics than men.  The gender gap in discussion of political issues is actually expanding.

2.  Confidence Gap

Women are far less likely to claim personal characteristics such leadership and public speaking skills, competitiveness, social skills and popularity, all of which are the very qualities we want in our political leaders.   The gender gaps have not narrowed since the 1960s.

3.  Expectations Gap

Young college women are less likely to have ever been encouraged to run for an political office by pretty much everyone in their lives, including parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and even friends.  Interestingly, women are just as likely to be encouraged to run for student government positions as men.  In a way, women are expected to lead to a certain level, but not at a highest level.

4.  Race and Class Gaps

Women of color and women who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are left far behind their White and economically advantaged counterparts in most indicators of civic participation. Ignoring these race and class gaps can mask important challenges we have.  When we simply compare genders without considering their racial backgrounds, there are little gender differences in most of the comparisons.

5.  Assessment Gap

We currently rely on standardized tests for assessment of civic competency in K-12 grades but standardized tests are designed to measure factual knowledge, but not civic motivation or  leadership and collaboration skills.  Thus, simply increasing the amount of testing and holding schools accountable for civic learning, based solely on civics test is not likely to help us understand why there is gender leadership gap or measure the progress we make to close it.

Promoting Best Practice and Future Agenda

Ten years ago, The Civic Mission of Schools challenged k-12 institutions to better prepare students and identified six promising practices[i] and our colleagues have made much progress then, both in understanding what works, and in creating innovative ways to acquire civic knowledge, skills and dispositions.  Recently, a useful report from Education Commission of the States described various practices of “New Civics.”

In this newer framing of civics, students not only gain knowledge about the structure and function of the government and how laws are made from textbook, they can also approach these important topics using alternative methods, such as community-based projects, games, and live simulations.

Students are also known to develop into civically and politically engaged young adults when they discuss current events, particularly when issues are relevant to young people, and even controversial.  Through these occasions, students can not only learn about issues but also practice how to disagree, argue their points, and compromise at times.

Leaders of civic learning from all sectors are calling for renewed focus on civic learning in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and in the communities.  A Crucible Moment, a landmark report by Department of Education and Association for American Colleges and Universities calls on colleges and universities to reclaim the civic mission of colleges and universities, and challenge us to expand our traditional concept of college-level civic education to include far more than civic knowledge, but include self-understanding, readiness for action, and understanding of diverse context.  The U.S. Department of Education shows strong commitment to civic learning for young people of all backgrounds by laying out a roadmap for action in a recent report.[ii] While it is critical that we educate all young people to become civically and politically engaged, we must continue to address the between- and within-gender gaps, so that American men and women of all backgrounds have equal voice in our political leadership in the future.  Our findings make it clear that we have much to improve.


Find more analysis in our 2016 Election Center. For regular updates in your Inbox about youth and the 2016 election, sign up for CIRCLE's monthly E-Update here.

One Response to “Women are Committed Civic Actors but We Still Have Much to Go”

  1. Campaign for Stronger Democracy newsletter – May 2013 | Campaign for Stronger Democracy Says:

    […] Women are Committed Civic Actors but We Still Have Much to Go (CIRCLE): In recent decades, women have achieved near parity in many sectors, while girls and young women are ahead of boys and young men in areas such as volunteering and voting. However, women remain underrepresented in government, business, law, and higher education leadership. […]