Diversity and Democracy

Run Like a Girl … for Office: How Higher Education Can Advance Gender Equity in Politics

During Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, television viewers saw an Always advertisement asking, “What does it look like to run like a girl?” After demonstrating how running like a girl” is understood as an insult among young adults, the ad turns to eight- to twelve-year-old girls who view “running like a girl” as an affirmative challenge. Warning that girls’ confidence goes down in middle school and advocating for change, the ad highlights how sexism is socially acceptable in the United States. Unfortunately, middle school is not the only problem: girls and women lose self-confidence at all educational levels, including college, setting them on a trajectory inconsistent with careers in politics.

In this article, we examine the stereotypes that girls and women face at all educational levels and describe the labyrinth that women enter when they pursue political careers. We then explore the role of higher education in building or undermining women’s confidence as they prepare for political roles. Finally, we point to shifts in American attitudes that foreshadow a more equitable future, and offer recommendations to help colleges and universities cultivate gender equity among the next generation of political leaders.

Stereotypes and Discrimination

Women account for slightly more than half of the US population, and they lead men in every educational measure, from completing high school to obtaining advanced degrees (Executive Office of the President of the United States 2014, 9). Despite these gains, they hold under 20 percent of leadership positions in most fields, including politics on a state and national level (Warner 2014). Women hold only 26 percent of US college and university presidencies (Cook 2012). According to a 2014 American Progress report, “It will take until the year 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country” (Warner 2014).

Extensive research has identified several explanations for the “glass ceiling” women face on their way to advancement, including stereotypes and discrimination. Research findings are clear: gender stereotyping exists, even among well-meaning educators; it starts early and has serious implications for women’s progress. For example, in a recent experimental study, middle- and high-school educators responding to identical position statements presented by hypothetical candidates for student council rated “Emily” as “hard-working,” “bubbly,” and “inexperienced” while rating “Jacob” as “confident” and “charismatic” (Beane et al. 2014).  

Consistent with this research, Schneider and Bos (2014) found that Americans assign positive leadership traits (e.g., “educated,” “competitive,” “ambitious,” “confident,” “well-spoken,” “assertive,” “charismatic”) to male politicians, while female politicians are viewed as having other characteristics (e.g., “emotional,” “compassionate,” “caring,” “honest”) that are not equated with political leadership. As Schneider and Bos conclude, “female politicians are simply not seen as having qualities requisite for the politician role in comparison to their male colleagues” (259).

Unfortunately, stereotyping starts early in primary school, continues through high school and college, affects employment, and—if women do pursue political careers—influences voters. Thus stereotypes influence the messages sent to girls and women about the leadership roles they should pursue. Stereotypes affect women as they aspire to traditionally male professions, including politics. Because stereotypes for politicians and females do not overlap, people find it difficult to envision women as political leaders.

Navigating the Labyrinth

Women face formidable barriers in deciding whether to enter politics and once they seek office. Eagly and Carli (2007) argue that the metaphor of the glass ceiling should be replaced with the image of a labyrinth. The journey through that labyrinth begins at entry to a political career, and women and men get started differently. Women need more encouragement than men to run for office, but they are less likely to get it. Several studies have examined how men and women get started. Women enter politics by engaging in local, issue-based activism (Political Parity 2014, 8) or organizations (Sanbonmatsu, Carroll, and Walsh 2009, 16), while men enter politics through self-started campaigns (Sanbonmatsu, Carroll, and Walsh 2009, 8) or because they were encouraged by parties or elected officials (Lawless and Fox 2012, 12). Women are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans (Pew Research Center 2015, 12).

Women with political aspirations face a double bind: when they play the supportive “feminine” roles they have been conditioned for, they appear unambitious; and if they seem ambitious, they are viewed as abrasive and “unfeminine.” Like men, they have to contend with the costs of a political career: loss of privacy, long hours and travel schedules, the challenges of balancing work and family, and even safety issues (e.g., when campaigning door-to-door). These concerns weigh more heavily on women than on men. For women facing or considering these challenges, role models and mentors matter; but with female political representation so low, women are less likely than men to find same-gender mentors.

Women are also deterred by perceptions of key components of political roles, such as negative campaigning, fundraising, and going door-to-door to meet constituents (Lawless and Fox 2012, 11). Women endure blatant disrespect, as illustrated by the sexist heckling and commentary that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin encountered during their 2008 campaigns (Farrell 2010). And women face the trap of being hand-picked to lead in situations involving a higher likelihood of failure. In their study comparing identically qualified women and men and the circumstances under which they are selected as leaders, Haslam and Ryan (2008) describe a “glass cliff” facing women: men are promoted to leadership positions when things are going well; women are promoted when things are precarious (544).

Countering discrimination and removing structural barriers will encourage women to run for office. Until that happens, however, women need extraordinary resilience and grit to enter and stay in the labyrinth.

Higher Education and Women’s Confidence

Colleges and universities play a critical role in promoting fair representation of women in our democracy. Because students begin to form concrete visions for their careers in college, stereotypes encountered there can be particularly destructive. Yet, in a recent study of innate “brilliance,” women across races and ethnicities—as well as African Americans across gender identities—were found to be underrepresented in fields that academics viewed as requiring innate talent and overrepresented in fields perceived as requiring motivation and sustained effort (Leslie et al. 2015). Although not specifically included in the recent study, the field of politics is one of these fields.

Women’s beliefs about their abilities can affect their engagement as leaders on campus. In 2011, Princeton University issued an internal report comparing the experiences of female and male students. Among its many findings, the report noted that women held leadership positions on campus, but women were less visible than men, and some reported being actively discouraged from pursuing prominent leadership positions. It also noted that women “consistently undersell themselves.”

In 2013, we published a CIRCLE Fact Sheet comparing the perspectives of college women and men that contribute to gender disparities in leadership, particularly political leadership (Kawashima-Ginsberg and Thomas 2013). We found that college women are less likely than their male peers to claim characteristics such as leadership ability, skill in public speaking, competitiveness, social skills, and popularity, all commonly named characteristics of political leaders (4). While in college, women’s perceptions of their own leadership skills slightly decrease, while men’s confidence increases (8) (see figure 1).


Click here to expand figure 1.

When they lose confidence and avoid leadership opportunities in college, women may suffer stereotype threat; they may believe that they do not deserve to enter leadership positions (Steele and Aronson 1995). For women who are members of other marginalized groups, these effects may be compounded by stereotype threat connected to their other marginalized identities.

By the time they consider politics, men are more likely than women to consider themselves “qualified to run” (35 percent of men compared with 22 percent of women). Among men and women who do not view themselves as qualified to run, 55 percent of men (verses 39 percent of women) nonetheless think about running (Fox and Lawless 2010, 9). Education is a gateway to a political career. Early socialization about stereotypes of girls and boys persists at the postsecondary level and affects how prepared women feel to pursue political careers.

Good News: Changing Perspectives

There are several reasons for cautious optimism: changing attitudes toward women in political office; evidence that, once nominated, women can succeed; and changing perspectives on effective leadership.

Changing attitudes: In 1937, 33 percent of poll respondents said they would vote for a well-qualified woman for president; by 2006, that number had reached 92 percent. Seventy-five percent of Americans say that women and men are equally capable political leaders (Pew Research Center 2015, 19). While studies show that bias favoring boys and men starts early and persists (e.g., Beane et al. 2014) the fact that Americans say they would support a female president is a good sign.

An opening to the labyrinth: State representatives, often the first elected position for both women and men, tend to be selected because they have experience in the community. Local leadership or activism or just good neighboring can provide women with a local profile to support their being elected.

Likelihood of success: Women may be less likely to be recruited or run for office (and to get the nomination), but once they become candidates, they are as likely as men to win primaries and general elections for state legislatures, governorships, and Congress (Eagly 2007, 7).

Favorable ratings: Once in elected positions, women are viewed favorably, albeit differently. According to the Pew Research Center (2015), women are seen as being better than men at working out compromises, being honest and ethical, standing for something despite political pressure, and being persuasive (22). In this era of political polarization and policy stand-offs, these are important leadership characteristics.

Better leaders: What constitutes “effective leadership” is evolving, and that evolution favors women. During most of the twentieth century, public opinion supported the idea of the individual as leader—a “transactional” model of leadership as top-down and hierarchical, with power and decision-making authority centralized (Dugan 2006, 217). In contrast, transformational leaders communicate the values and purpose of the organization or task, motivate by respecting their colleagues, reward positive outcomes, manifest optimism, and mentor and focus on the individual needs of their employees (Eagly 2007, 3).

The evolution from transactional to transformational leadership, however, is not accepted across industries, and politics is one field where transactional leadership has a stubborn hold. But that, too, may be changing. Over the past twenty years, deliberative democracy has been gaining traction, particularly at local levels (Leighninger 2006). In a deliberative democracy, governments invite public participation beyond voting, and everyday citizens actively engage issues through a process that invites and considers all, even unpopular, perspectives. This form of political engagement, like transformational leadership, plays to women’s strengths.

What Higher Education Can Do

Colleges and universities can take advantage of new knowledge and shifts in attitudes about what constitutes “good leadership” and prepare women for those roles. Some specific actions include:

  1. Offer education and professional development for female and male faculty, staff, and students that deconstructs stereotypes. Everyone should understand the socializing agents at every stage of human development and their effect on how women and men view themselves as leaders.
  2. Embed opportunities across campus for students to practice and faculty, administrators, and staff to model transformational, democratic leadership. Deliberative democracy can serve as a framework for student learning, classroom teaching methods, institutional decision making, and community-university partnerships (Thomas 2010).
  3. Provide more students with opportunities to engage in simulations that use essential political skills. These include model United Nations, ethics bowls, debate teams, and dialogues across differences of ideology, social identity, and lived experiences.
  4. Encourage staff and faculty to examine their own implicit biases, not only regarding women but across intersecting identity groups. This can be done through Project Implicit at Harvard University (https://implicit.harvard.edu/).
  5. Conduct a version of the Princeton study (2011) to determine whether men receive more attention and encouragement than their female peers.
  6. Provide women with information about how to access and navigate political systems so that they can find mentors and can make strategic choices that improve their chances for success.
  7. Train women in the arts of campaigning. One promising two-day program, Rutgers University’s Ready to Run, covers the nuts and bolts of mounting a campaign, fundraising, staffing, navigating party structures, messaging, and mobilizing voters.
  8. Teach political savvy. Existing structures, such as student government, clubs, and voter mobilization activities, provide practical leadership opportunities, which should be constructed to support deep learning. Campuses can also develop curricula and certificates in leadership, community organizing, and deliberative democracy.
  9. Cultivate relationships with civic organizations that advance women candidates, and develop a network of people willing to serve as mentors and create opportunities for meaningful interaction between students and female politicians. Encourage internships with politicians and campaigns.
  10. Encourage political careers through the career services office.
  11. Apply these recommendations across all underserved populations. Women of color face even greater challenges of stereotyping, discrimination, and structural impediments to public office than white women do.


Stereotypes, discrimination, and structural barriers persist. Without consciously recognizing their views as discriminatory, Americans underrate women’s innate ability to lead while assuming that political leadership requires an innate ability. Both differential valuation of women’s innate ability and an assumption that political leadership requires particular traits and talents may explain why women are underrepresented as political leaders.

Based on several decades of research, we know a lot about how educational experiences at all levels affect girls and women. We understand the backgrounds and paths of women who pursue political offices, the obstacles they face, and the attitudes of Americans toward them. We know more than ever before about the factors that facilitate and impede their success while in office. And we have a better understanding of effective leadership more broadly, how leadership styles are evolving, and how that evolution might advantage women. This knowledge should be taught to all students, not just those with political aspirations, because awareness of the obstacles women face and understanding of implicit bias will move us toward a more equitable democracy.

Author’s note: We are seeking examples of campus leadership programs for women that have been assessed rigorously. Please contact Nancy Thomas (nancy.thomas@tufts.edu) if you have completed or are interested in collaborating on a study.


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Dugan, John P. 2006. “Explorations Using the Social Change Model: Leadership Development among College Men and Women.” Journal of College Student Development 47 (2): 217–25.

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Eagly, Alice H., and Linda L. Carli. 2007. Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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Franke, Ray, Sylvia Ruiz, Jessica Sharkness, Linda DeAngelo, and John Pryor. 2010. Findings from the 2009 Administration of the College Senior Survey (CSS): National Aggregates. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institution, University of California–Los Angeles. http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/Reports/2009_CSS_Report.pdf.

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Lawless, Jennifer L., and Richard L. Fox. 2012. Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics. Washington, DC: Women and Politics Institute, American University. https://www.american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/2012-Men-Rule-Report-final-web.pdf.

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Thomas, Nancy L. 2010. “Educating for Deliberative Democracy.” New Directions for Higher Education 152. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Warner, Judith. 2014. “Women’s Leadership: What’s True, What’s False, and Why it Matters.” Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/.

Nancy Thomas is director of the Initiatives for the Study of Higher Education and Public Life at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service; and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is director of CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

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