♀️ Fewer women than men in parties’ youth wings want to run for office

Youth wings of political parties are a key part of the pipeline to power. However, among their members, fewer women than men would consider running for public office. According to Sofia Ammassari, if we want to redress women’s underrepresentation in parliaments, youth wings are a good place to start

The gender gap in political ambition

More women than ever are being elected as MPs. Yet in most of the world's parliaments, women remain underrepresented. Some explanations for this inequality concern how institutions such as parties and parliaments are organised and function. With their formal and informal rules, norms and practices, these institutions reinforce the idea that politics is a man’s world.

Other explanations for women's underrepresentation refer to the ways in which women have been socialised. Well-established norms associate women with the private sphere and men with the public one. Women, therefore, tend to display less political ambition than men. They have less desire to run for public office, and even when their parties do ask them to run, they are more likely to say ‘no’.

Women have less desire to run for public office, and even when their parties do ask them to run, they are more likely to say ‘no’

In the European Journal of Political Research, Duncan McDonnell, Marco Valbruzzi and I published a study based on our survey of political parties’ youth wing members. We aimed to discover whether the gender gap in political ambition was already present among this distinct group of politically engaged young women and men. What we know from previous research on youth wings is that many members aspire to run for office. What we don’t know is whether women are already less ambitious than men at this early stage of the pipeline to power, or whether they become so later.

We surveyed youth wing members from six centre-Left and centre-Right parties in Australia, Italy, and Spain. Our findings reveal a worrying trend. Not only do women represent only a small minority of youth wing members; they are also much less likely than men to say they would consider standing as a candidate in the future. If parties are genuinely interested in improving women’s representation and influence, they should look more closely at their youth wings.

Why should we care about youth wings?

Party youth wings are where many of tomorrow’s leaders are formed. Think of current Prime Ministers on the Left and Right in major democracies: Giorgia Meloni (Italy), Olaf Scholz (Germany), Ulf Kristersson (Sweden), Anthony Albanese (Australia). All started their careers in party youth wings. And, in most cases, so did their main opposition leaders.

Beyond prime ministers and party leaders, research into the careers of parliamentarians shows how sizeable proportions of MPs have held senior positions in youth wings. To understand the causes of women’s underrepresentation in parliaments and cabinets, therefore, analysing these party sub-organisations would be a useful starting point.

That is precisely what we did in our study. We surveyed over 2,000 members of three youth wings on the centre-Left (Young Labor in Australia, Young Democrats in Italy, and Socialist Youth in Spain) and on the centre-Right (Young Liberals in Australia, Forza Italia Youth in Italy, and New Generations in Spain). Among other questions, we asked members whether they would like to stand as candidates for their party one day.

Women in youth wings are less politically ambitious than men

The first key finding of our research is that, just like their senior parties, youth wings are men-dominated. Overall, women made up about a quarter of our respondents. As the graph below shows, there are no big differences across the six youth wings. In fact, women respondents account for less than one third of members in five youth wings. The only exception is Spain's Socialist Youth. Among the three countries, Italy has the greatest gender imbalance.

In terms of absolute numbers, youth wings are boys' clubs

Notably, we can see some variation by party ideology. In each country, the centre-Left youth wing has a higher proportion of women than the centre-Right one. Nonetheless, the picture emerging from our survey is that, in terms of absolute numbers, youth wings are boys’ clubs.

Gender composition of survey respondents

Our second key finding is that women youth-wing members are less interested than their men counterparts in running for office. Women who said they would like to stand as candidates in the future made up about 50% of our respondents. This compares with 75% of men who expressed an interest in standing.

The graph below displays the gender distribution of these respondents across the six youth wings. The largest gender disparities in ambition are in Australia, where we find gaps of at least 30 percentage points. And in both Australia and Italy, ambition gender gaps are greater in the centre-Left youth wing than in the centre-Right one.

Gender composition of respondents who said they would like to stand as candidates

Overall, the evidence is clear: even among this group of politically interested, skilful and engaged young people, women are less interested than men in pursuing a career in public office.

Change begins in the youth wing

So, what can parties and youth wings do to make parliamentary careers more appealing to women? First, parties should begin to actively recruit higher numbers of women members. Doing so at the youth wing level, when patterns of inequality between women and men are not as established as when they grow older, should be a key priority.

Recruiting more women at the youth wing level, before patterns of inequality become entrenched, should be a key priority

Second, youth wings should ensure that women and men are provided with the same opportunities to be trained and recruited for office. This means combating practices such as homosocial mentoring – in which older men in the party (who, obviously, are the majority) only mentor young men – and adversarial party cultures which disadvantage women.

In other words, we need to fix the youth wings of today, to have more gender-equal parliaments tomorrow.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Sofia Ammassari
Sofia Ammassari
Research Fellow, Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University, Queensland

Sofia's main research interests are populism, political parties, and women’s and youth political participation.

She has published on these topics in leading journals such as the European Journal of Political Research and Government & Opposition.

She tweets @AmmassariSofia

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram