The balloons are popped, the pundits have weighed in, and Hillary Clinton is the first woman to be nominated for President by a major political party. Regardless of your party affiliation, it was hard to come away from last week’s Democratic National Convention without a sense that history was made: a woman has finally pushed through those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and one that should have the capacity to change the trajectory for gender parity in political leadership across the United States. But will it?
There are 500,000 elective offices in the US and women still hold only 22% of those seats. That means we still need 140,000 more women in office to achieve gender parity. Most of those offices are at the local and state level, and while they don’t get the same attention as President or Congress, these elected leaders make critical policy decisions that impact the daily lives of people in their home communities, issues like what subjects get taught in school, how we police our streets, what kinds of weapons our citizens can carry, how we allocate our natural resources.
I am certain that Hillary Clinton’s nomination will have an inspirational effect on young women - even moreso if she wins the Presidency and girls grow up seeing a woman leading the most powerful nation in the world. But again, look at the numbers we need to make gender parity a reality: 140,000 more women in office, which means we’ll need at least four times as many to run. That’s a lot of inspiration to ask of a single woman, even if she does reach the highest office in the land. We can’t rely on this historic candidacy to work its magic. It’s up to us to address the root causes of the problem.
When you look at the research on political ambition and young people it is clear we need more than inspiration. In high school, boys and girls share the same level of political ambition, but by young adulthood, men surge forward in their desire to lead. What’s the cause of this differentiation? Young women are more likely to be socialized by parents to think of political and civic leadership as a career path. Likewise, school and media provide young women with less exposure to political information and discussion. Young women are less likely to receive encouragement to run from anyone in any part of their lives. The net result is that young women don’t think they will ever be qualified for public leadership, even once they are established in their careers. So shockingly, three times as many young women are more open to becoming a secretary than a member of Congress!
Some may say that this change will organically occur with or without our participation. And research confirms it will - in a 100 years! Perhaps that number will shift if Clinton wins the 2016 Presidential election, but don’t we want to accelerate that progress?
Instead of waiting around for this shift to happen from the top down, let’s own the solutions ourselves. As parents we can talk to our daughters about what it’s like to see a woman running for this historic office and help them analyze why it has taken so long to happen. Parents and educators can encourage our daughters to run for office in their schools and communities from an early age. Teachers can use this historic moment as a platform to discuss political leadership vis a vis the constitution: who did that document protect and how did it influence who leads us? All of us can go one step further by talking to our daughters (and sons) to recognize how the media double standards in political coverage of male and female candidates and teach them analyze what they see.
Yes, the first woman has crashed through the political glass ceiling. It’s up to us to ensure millions more young women follow her through. A century is too long to wait.