Girl Scouts poll suggests that teens see politics as ‘a man’s world’

Margot Francini, 11, leading a Girl Scouts flag ceremony in 2008. Photo courtesy of Laura Francini.

Girl Scouts of the USA just published a few numbers, and they’re not this year’s cookie sales.

The youth organization’s recently released “pulse poll” found that though girls are interested in politics and are experienced in civic engagement, they don’t see a career in politics for themselves. Seventy-four percent believe that if they pursued a political career, they would “have to work harder than a man to be taken seriously.”

According to the report, the study’s figures can be boiled down to this: “Girls are well aware that politics is ‘a man’s world.’”

Girl Scouts chief executive Anna Maria Chávez attributes this to societal barriers. “Girls can’t be what they can’t see,” she said of the disproportionately low number of female leaders. “And when we look at the media, you see what transpires at a national level of politics. It’s tough to be a political leader in this country today.”

This sentiment isn’t new. A gender gap has shown up in reports measuring interest in politics for years. In 2008, a Pew Research Center study found that the adults rated women as superior to men on a majority of important leadership traits. However, over half of survey respondents said that the reason why there were fewer women in top elective offices is because many Americans weren’t ready to elect one.

In 2008, while women's leadership skills were considered largely superior to men's, half of poll responders didn't think Americans were ready to vote a women into high office. Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center.

An expansive 2013 study by American University found that among qualified professionals and young college students, women were less likely to express interest in a political career.

The message is as simple as it is repetitive: Women aren’t running for political office at the same rate as men. The Girl Scouts poll’s numbers depict girls as political beings and the organization’s analysis instructs them not to shy from that power. Although Girl Scouts can still collect badges for hiking and talking to seniors, the national poll of 1,088 girls ages 11 to 17, and its recommendations for political mentorship, demonstrate the organization’s intent to modernize.

“We are working to make our programs relevant and interesting for girls,” Chávez told She The People.

This year saw a drop in 400,000 registered Girl Scouts from 3.2 million to 2.8 million total. In addition, a drop in adult volunteers has reduced resources for the girls who need troop leaders and cookie moms.

Anna McGuire, 15, from Cabin John, Md., was a girl scout from second to fourth grade, but her troop disbanded when there weren’t enough girls her age to participate.

“I would’ve loved to stay involved,” McGuire said. “I didn’t have that opportunity at the time.”

When her younger sister joined a younger troop, McGuire became a volunteer, supervising activities and accompanying camping trips. Now, McGuire volunteers as a teen adviser co-chair of Girl Up, the global youth-empowerment campaign for girls.

Anna McGuire, 15, (center) with friends at the Whitman Girls Up Leadership Summit in June 2014. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Craven.)

“As things stand now, women have somewhat of a disadvantage,” McGuire said. “Look at our history. We’ve never had a women president or vice president. But times are changing. By the time I’m considering running for office, hopefully there won’t be a stereotype that women can’t hold public office.”

The severity of the perceived stereotype depends on who you ask.

Anna Eagle, 12, of Bethesda, Md., is a sixth-grader at Pyle Middle School. A former Girl Scout, Eagle doesn’t consider herself politically active, despite holding a seat on her elementary school student council for two years.

Eagle, who has a twin brother, Andrew, firmly believes girls can do anything boys can do. At Pyle, winners of student council elections are distinguished by their speeches, she says, not by their gender and not necessarily because of their popularity. But she has noticed differences in who runs in elections outside of school.

“It seems like every time people run [for public office], it’s usually two guys,” she said. “I guess there are more male candidates.”

Last spring, Chávez, the Girl Scouts CEO, was part of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to ban the word “bossy.” Whether or not the campaign will succeed in wiping out gendered adjectives is no longer a necessary debate. It’s the campaign’s support of women leadership from figures like Beyoncé and first lady Michelle Obama that can make political equality the new normal for Eagle and McGuire. Since the campaign launched in March, girls worldwide have tallied several victories, including a Nobel Peace Prize for 17-year-old Malala Yousafzai.

In the national arena, women voters are a prized demographic. In fact, as campaigns ramp up support from women voters before Election Day, it’s clear that even if girls don’t recognize their future political clout, polling firms and politicians do.

One could argue that there’s never been a more supportive environment for girls interested in politics. Yet, the perception from girls in studies shows otherwise: Although the country’s political environment might be comfortable for some girls, political action is certainly not encouraged for all — not for girls who don’t have participatory parents, strong mentors or the funds to enroll them in youth-empowerment activities.

Margot Francini, 11, of Mooresville, N.C., whose mother Laura turns to NPR every morning, likes politics but understands not everyone has the access she does. As a cadette in her seventh year of Girl Scouts, Francini attended the Democratic National Convention in 2012 with her mother and younger sister, Scarlett, 9. The two sisters blogged about their experience for their Girl Scout troop, and Scarlett made a presentation about it at school.

“It’s important for kids to listen to the news and know what’s going on in politics,” said Francini. “So they know why people are doing things.”

For the Girl Scouts, Chávez says the data creates opportunities to talk to girls about their political options. But for girls like Eagle, there’s no rush.

“I don’t really understand most of the issues right now,” said Eagle. “But it’s just because I haven’t been learning about it. When I get older, I’ll get into it.”

What issues will she pay attention to?

“Fights that presidents have and arguments that congressmen have with each other,” she said.