Women are still lagging behind their male counterparts in the policy arena, and changing that requires engaging younger women.
In recent years, several prominent women have replaced their male predecessors in top think tank leadership positions. Last year, Anne-Marie Slaughter replaced Steve Coll as president of the New America Foundation; in 2011, Neera Tanden took over for John Podesta as president of the Center for American Progress. In early 2012, Felicia Wong took over as President and CEO here at the Roosevelt Institute, replacing Andy Rich. While these women leaders are touted as examples of greater female representation in public policy, this is hardly the full picture.
Women are taking on leadership roles in think tank management, but men still dominate the thinking roles, making up the majority of scholars and “Senior Fellows” who influence policy. According to their public rosters, only a quarter of CAP fellows, 19 of 59 Brookings Institution experts, 20 out of 65 fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, and seven of 33 Heritage Foundation fellows are women. In academia, an incubator of think tank experts, women hold only 24 percent of tenured positions at doctoral-granting institutions, and merely 19 percent of tenured full professor positions.
Perhaps contrary to common assumption, women’s lack of representation in think tanks isn’t due to their lack of academic expertise. In fact, women are quickly edging to surpass men in higher education. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Report ranked the United States number one for gender equality in educational attainment among more than 130 countries. Last year, 31.4 percent of American women 25 years and over had completed college, compared to 32 percent of men. 27,300 men and 27,600 women received doctoral degrees.
Why does equal education attainment fail to translate into equal representation in policy research institutions?
Possible answers to this question range from women having more family obligations to self-selecting against policy areas like defense and finance. Other potential explanations include difficulty securing mentorship early in their careers and systemic biases.
A related problem is the lack of women in political positions, since many policy wonks rise from the ranks of former politicians and government officials. Less than 20 percent of federal and state legislators are women. They occupy only six of 23 cabinet and cabinet-level positions. If fewer women enter politics, fewer women join think tanks after serving their term.
We may be able to find a better answer in looking at a woman’s career ambitions, where a fundamental gap exists between young men and women’s political ambitions. The School of Public Affairs at American University conducted a survey last year of more than 2,100 college students ages 18 to 25 and found that young women are less likely to be socialized by their parents to consider politics as a career path and less likely to think they will be qualified to run for office.
Yet we need young women more than ever to step up and ensure that the next generation of American policymakers remains committed to full gender equality. According to a recent World Bank Report, women’s participation in government results in greater responsiveness to citizen needs and policies that prioritize families and women. When at least a quarter of a country’s legislators were women, laws discriminating against women were more likely to be repealed.
We cannot change existing structures in governments and think tanks today. Rather, we must invest in women of the future to change the gender gap in political ambition. Currently, a number of programs exist that encourage young women to run for office, develop female graduate students in public policy, or offer brief leadership trainings for college women. However, these programs lack a long-term support network to engage undergraduate women in public policy at the beginning of their careers.
With chapters at 115 colleges and universities, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is well positioned to fill this gap, beginning with the Eleanor Roosevelt Policy Initiative. This summer, the Campus Network is hosting an essay contest on gender equality, selecting six young people to attend the Women and Girls Rising Conference. In September, the winners will engage with prominent activists, officials, and scholars on the past and future of international women’s movements.
Following the conference, these individuals will continue to work with the Campus Network on promoting young women in policy spheres. To move forward with a vision of equality, we must tell young women today that their ideas are vital in creating stable governments and societies of tomorrow.
If you are a current college student or recent graduate, enter the contest here.
Hannah Zhang interned for the Roosevelt Institute's Women and Girls Rising initiative as a Summer Academy Fellow this year. She is Campus Network's External Relations Coordinator for the Northeast.