Do you think you could be President of the United States?

I asked young girls and boys alike. When I used to spend my afternoons volunteering in a low-income school district next to my town, I tutored a sizeable group of middle school students.

The girls, with abashment, shook their heads to my question. Not strong, not loud, not smart enough, they said. Shouldn’t the President be a man?

The boys, with eagerness, pumped their fists. Watch me! Wanna bet who’ll be President first? It was a remarkable moment.

At such a young age, the gender ambition gap was to me as clear as day.

Girl Rising Ambassador Cathy works to empower youth - especially adolescent girls - to see their own power as leader.

“Who are you going to vote for?” I asked my schoolmates at the election convention. When our high school held their annual student body elections, I observed an election race for seven positions between fifteen boys and four girls.

It came down to the final round on our vote for President. Probably her, most of them said. She’s intelligent, and she has great ideas for our school. Definitely him, others said. He’s hilarious!

The question was posed, and they answered. “How are you different?” She gave a seamless, serious answer on her most original proposals. Some delegates nodded.

He talked about his car, joked about driving, then something I don’t remember. The voting delegates keeled over in laughter. The ballots came around. The results were announced. He won. On stage, he was joined by six other newly elected males.

Why do less females run? Why are girls less risk-averse?

I understand the fear of losing and humiliation well — it is a feeling that more prominently affects the mindset of girls.

I remember thinking hard about running for an elected position in Youth & Government. Thinking hard about writing speeches, delivering speeches, actively campaigning, and talking to people. I backed down, or talked myself into backing down. I thought I wasn’t qualified enough. What would I do if I had lost? I couldn’t bear imagining.

I understand the fear of criticism and backlash — it is a deterrent that more prominently affects the mindset of girls.

My best friend almost ran a campaign for student council last year. She overheard others commenting on her track record of three boyfriends, her obsession with makeup, and she backed down. How can anyone deal with such mudslinging? She couldn’t bear imagining.

In our government, businesses, and public life women are severely underrepresented because so few of us run for leadership. This needs to change if we want to fight women’s issues, change policy, and take down barriers females still face in education, in the workforce, and in the way of our own bodies.

We must break down two obstacles: our mindset and institutional biases.

Neither will be easy. Our damaging mindset that stems from our lack of confidence and ambition is shaped by the world we live in, the stereotypes our society perpetuates, and the culture we grow up experiencing. Institutional biases are buried deep in party politics and the Old Boys’ Network, difficult to spotlight, difficult to alter.

Yet these are the fortunate, or I daresay, better obstacles.

In Cathy's words: "All of the girls in this photo are strong and beautiful, but above all they believe every woman looks like a politician because every woman can be a politician. Every girl can be a leader, and that's the message I want to get across."

In a world different from what many of us take for granted, girls grow up without a chance, without a dream, and even without a voice. They do not recognise self-esteem or pride.

They must break down tradition, stigmas, and their own understanding of women.

It is a process that all of us must come together to make happen. Females can empower one another. It is not a fight to fight alone.

You can run. All of us can. You can challenge yourself, and pave the road for more women to run — and win. You can challenge yourself, and influence policy to empower women worldwide.

What would I do if I had lost? I would be a braver person, because I took the risk and withstood the criticism. I set an example for other girls to follow. I would encourage more girls to run.

Nowadays I go to middle schools to teach girls about leadership and empowerment in an after school curriculum I lead. I help them develop essentials skills and confidence.

Do you think you could be President of the United States? I asked these young girls.

Yes, they tell me. Because I can run.

This blog was contributed by Girl Rising Ambassador Cathy Sun. Cathy is a writer, feminist, and social activist. She aims to become a figure in public leadership and policy, a sector in which females severely lack representation globally – and hence have limited ability to take down barriers they face in education, socioeconomic status and basic human rights. She became a Girl Rising ambassador with one goal in mind: to empower girls everywhere in both their minds and bodies.