Head Start for Young Women Consultations

The Head Start for Young Women consultations were carried out in Ottawa between November 2013 and February 2014 with over 100 young women between the ages of 16 and 24. About 80% of respondents chose to attend an organized consultation, and 20% of respondents were approached in high school and college hallways by our Head Start participants.

Research Question

Each consultation asked the question, “What barriers do you think prevent young women from thinking about pursuing positions of leadership in politics?”


Those participating in the consultation were encouraged to right down each barrier idea on separate piece of paper. Participants were encouraged to write down as many barriers as they could think of.

The responses of the participants approached in the hallways were written down individually by the Head Start participants. The data was sorted according to theme.

Results and Analysis

The themes are listed here in descending order in terms of how frequently related data points were cited. The general opinion induced from the data is described underneath the theme along with a general description of the discussion had during the consultations related to the theme.

1. Mistreatment of women by popular media

  • Popular media sexualizes and trivializes the portrayal of women in politics and all other fields
  • Journalists treat female politicians with a double standard in comparison to how male politicians are treated
  • Female politicians often face harsh judgement for the state of their personal lives, appearance, and demeanour, in addition to their position on public policy issues.
  • Women are overly-sexualized in popular media, leading young women to believe that their desirability is of greater value than their intelligence.
  • Sexism regularly exists in how journalists report stories.
  • Amateur bloggers and Twitter users can be sexist and publish without repercussions.

2. Lack of confidence

  • Women have a tendency to feel under-qualified to be in such a position
  • Negative media attention perpetuates the lack of confidence felt by women to enter the public eye
  • Women are faced with pushback from peers when they do not act in a ‘feminine’ way, i.e. – kind, communal, supportive, caring
  • Women are faced with pushback in politics if they do not act in a ‘masculine’ way, i.e. – stoic, serious, plain-spoken
  • Driving most women’s actions is the concern with being liked
  • Women often have to be asked to run for office, instead of nominating themselves

3. Traditional gender roles

  • Women are still the primary caregivers for their children
  • Female politicians are criticized for being selfish and not being good to their families by choosing such a demanding job
  • Concern for balancing the interests of raising a family with the interests of having a leadership role

4. Negative female stereotypes

  • A double standard exists for how a female leader’s actions are judged in comparison to a male leader
  • Women tend to be competitive with and belittling to other women striving for a leadership role Young women are uncomfortable with being described as a ‘feminist’
  • There is a societal backslash for demonstrating too many, or too few, feminine qualities

5. Lack of early socialization for girls towards politics

  • Traditional gender roles are often introduced and reinforced in the home.
  • Politics is either not discussed in the home or is a discussion that young girls aren’t engaged in.
  • Civics is covered only in Grade 5 and Grade 10
  • All students found the Grade 10 civics course to be very weak in garnering student’s attention towards politics
  • Classroom content tends to centre around men in politics due to less representation of women in these roles
  • One Grade 9 student asked, “Is it even legal for a woman to become Prime Minister?.”

6. Lack of role models

  • Women don’t feel qualified to be in the spotlight and feel uncomfortable with the attention
  • There is strong sexual messaging around women in popular culture, and this overshadows the allure of positive female leaders who are in the public eye
  • There is a lack of mentors to encourage young women to strive for high-powered positions
  • Existing mentorship opportunities are not visible

7. Lack of resources to enter

  • Female leaders are uncomfortable to ask for money to support
  • Women are uncomfortable taking personal funds from their family to run for office
  • Being an elected official requires dedicated understanding and support from a partner to meet family needs

8. Negative workplace atmosphere

  • Hyper-partisanship at the provincial and federal levels of government
  • Highly stressful work environment
  • Highly negative workplace atmosphere
  • Colleagues can be highly confrontational, deceptive, and aggressive
  • Sexist colleagues
  • Lack of job stability
  • There are more attractive career options

Key Barriers

From these findings, the Head Start participants deduced that there are three key barriers that prevent young women from pursuing positions of leadership in politics. All of the themes listed above fit into one:

  1. They are not aware of politics
  2. If they are aware of politics, they are not interested in it
  3. If they are interested in politics, they do not know how to get involved

Addressing These Barriers

The “Giving a ‘Head Start’ to Young Women in Politics” Activity Manual was developed by Head Start Ottawa as a means of addressing key barrier #2.

Each activity in the manual is designed to address one or more of the barriers identified above.

FOCUSSING ON KEY BARRIER #2: Women Are Not Aware of, Nor Interested In, Politics

We surveyed 74 people throughout High Schools and University/Colleges in the Ottawa area, 38% male and 62% female. The survey was spread via social media (Facebook and Twitter) and school/social groups. The survey focused on questions about civics and careers class, as this is one of the main sources of exposure to politics for young people, as well as general interest in politics.

  • The general opinion on civics class is that it is “boring”, “useless”, and “too basic” along with “a joke course”. The information was interesting and useful, but the teacher was not engaging.
  • Potential suggested improvements for civics class include more debate and discussion, a separation between academic and applied, and have it be a grade 11 course or a grade 12 course so that it is more relevant to the students.
  • The general opinions on Canadian politics are that they are boring but important and that international politics are more interesting, but “Canadian politics don’t seem to make as much of a difference”. Students also mentioned that they were “confusing”, “stagnant”, and “frustrating”.
  • Only 32.4% said that they had considered going into a political career. Reasons they gave for wanting to go into politics included “wanting to make a change”, “interest in international politics”, “confidence in a leadership role”, and “general interest”.
  • People who said that they had considered this career also expressed concerns over the difficulty of this path. Most said they had considered a political life, but had ultimately decided against for many reasons. Some concerns were that it would be difficult to keep personal and public life separate, that they would have to compromise their own values, and the pressure of the job.
  • 51 People said they had not considered a political career because of a lack of interest, a lack of private life/representation by the media, didn’t like the work environment, lack of confidence in a leadership role, and a lack of resources and knowledge.
  • A lack of early socialization for girls towards politics and government-related fields, such as social media about politics or conversations with family/friends about politics of some sort at a younger age.
Responses re: interest in Canadian politics
Responses re: interest in Civics class
Responses re: Frequency of discussing politics
Responses re: usefulness of Civics class