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CIRCLE Lead Researcher Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg Speaks at White House

Monday, May 6, 2013

Our expert presented at a conference dedicated to addressing disparities in girls’ leadership and civic education.


Below are Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg's full remarks:

Just decades ago women and our advocates fought for parity in access to education and workplace. This narrative has shifted a lot. Now, women have achieved parity or near parity in many sectors and girls are ahead of boys in many academic subjects and college completion.

Girls and young women 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.

So, it appears that women have no problem becoming civically engaged, and they are high achievers in academics, including civics.

Yet, scholars have shown that women are grossly underrepresented in our political leadership and there is clearly a pipeline gap. And we find the same pattern of high achievement and underrepresentation in the corporate sector, law, and leadership in higher education (with an exception of community colleges).

On one hand, we have girls and women who are high civic achievers and yet, our daughters are still growing up seeing few female political leaders.


When we look at the figures closely, we can identify several important challenges for which we need solutions:

1. Interest gap

First, young women are much less interested in political engagement than men. The gender gap in discussion of political issues is actually expanding.

2. Confidence Gap

Second, 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, which is when the survey began.

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. So women are expected to lead to a certain level, but not at a higher level.

4. Race and Class Gap

A closer look at the data suggests that women of color and women who are disadvantaged are left far behind their White and educated counterparts in most indicators of civic participation. Furthermore, women of color are less likely to report feeling connected within the community by contacting public officials, trust of neighbors or regularly visiting family and friends. They were even less likely to be encouraged to express opinions within their own family.

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

Lastly, we currently rely on standardized tests for assessment of civic competency in K-12 grades. These tests assess knowledge quite well, but they are not designed to measure dispositions, motivation or skills, especially the ones needed for political leadership.

The most prevalent types of test today will not identify the gap in leadership skill or desire for political leadership. Nor will it identify areas of strength for girls. So, simply increasing the amount of testing and holding schools accountable for civic learning, based solely on civics test is not likely to help us identify the gender gaps or measure the progress we make to close it.

So, what can we do to promote civic engagement, especially for girls and women?

With recent progress in research and practice, we know more about what works in civic education, and I’m excited to tell you that we are starting to get more evidence supporting what’s called New Civics. In this newer framing of civics, students not only gain civic knowledge from textbooks, but they can also learn the content through topics that are relevant for them, and learn through hands-on experiences in their community through projects or service learning, or learn in simulations in classrooms, and in online learning spaces.

Students also 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 respectfully, argue their points, and compromise at times.

Teachers often face resistance from parents, administrators and the community, but these are the skills we ask of our political leaders. This is the time to teach these skills.

What can be done specifically for girls and young women?

We have a lot of work ahead in understanding what works best for girls. But so far, research implies that

  • We must address the interest and confidence gaps: since we know that these gaps are large by college-age, we know we must change what we do with younger girls so that there are young women who want to get into the political leadership pipeline.
    • At K-12 level, social studies must be taught to explicitly show that political leadership is a viable career option for girls of all backgrounds.
    • Institutions of higher education could make concerted efforts to reverse this strong gendered interest by encouraging women to participate in politics.
      (Our research shows that the political discussions are strongly gendered, meaning that women’s peer group just isn’t talking about politics. Courses, student organizations, campus events and climate an all help address this gap. )
  • Girls who are interested in helping others and solving problems in their communities, often through service, should be provided with a pathway toward political leadership. This would mean strong mentoring and instrumental support. Currently, both of these things appear to be insufficient.
  • Finally, we must stay on course to address the prominent race- and class-gaps among young women. It is critical that we promote leadership by women in general, but without minding the race- and class-gap, we will have an uneven representation of women’s voices and issues in the future.


Tisch College’s CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) is the leading source of authoritative research on civic and political engagement of young Americans.