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Strengthening Democracy: Girls’ Leadership and K-12 Education

A new report from the National Education Association and co-authored by CIRCLE researchers shares findings and recommendations related to enhancing girls' leadership.

The troubling gender gap that can result in lower civic and political participation among young women can begin as early as middle school, which makes schools an important focus of research.

That is the message of Taking the Lead: How Educators Can Help Close the Gender Leadership Gap, a new report on girls and women in leadership released by the National Education Association (NEA). The report, commissioned by the NEA, the American Association of University Women, and CIRCLE, presents findings from a survey of NEA members and explores educators’ perspectives on girls and leadership, particularly during middle and high school years. CIRCLE Deputy Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, and CIRCLE Youth Coordinator & Researcher Abby Kiesa helped co-author the report.

Women are drastically underrepresented in leadership in nearly all facets of American life, from the local school board to the U.S. Congress. Past research has shown that women’s interest in leadership, perception of their aptitude as leaders, and opportunities to develop leadership skills can be shaped by their experiences in middle and high school. This report focuses on some of the ways that schools and educators can help promote girls’ pathways to leadership and help close existing gaps.

Some key findings and implications:

  • Educators hold an egalitarian view of leadership and are open to promoting a non-gendered vision with their students, but barriers to fully promoting girls’ leadership remain.
  • Boys and girls take on different and often stereotypical leadership roles in school: 72% of middle school educators reported that girls were more likely to be leaders in English classes/clubs, while just 20% said girls were more likely to be leaders in science club/class. This suggests a need for educators to explicitly encourage students to try leadership roles in diverse contexts.
  • Implicit gender biases, stereotypes, and assumptions affect both educators and students, and may shape the leadership roles that girls are encouraged or discouraged from pursuing.

The findings were released on an international webinar hosted by the NEA. Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg presented the research findings alongside teachers and NEA leadership, who gave recommendations for how the leadership gaps can be closed and girls further encouraged.

This research built on a CIRCLE analysis done in 2013 about the political engagement of young women and girls. Kawashima-Ginsberg shared findings from CIRCLE writing on this topic, at a White House event about girls’ leadership and civic education. This research pointed to a need to understand how political interests and leadership motivation form before youth reach 18 years old.