The Importance of Female Role Models

Elizabeth Marino

When I was young, I rejected the idea that the lack of female role models in certain disciplines is a problem for young girls. I felt insulted at the notion that I was expected to identify only with people of the same sex as me. When I was 13, I had to write an essay about my role models and I made a point of including Leonardo da Vinci as well as Queen Elizabeth I. I felt that there was no reason I shouldn’t be just as inspired by, or identify just as strongly with, a man of achievement as a woman of achievement.

But to tell the truth, I have to admit that my inclusion of Leonardo, wonderful though he was, was a bit forced, compared to my obsession and my strong sense of identification with Elizabeth I. When I look back at my childhood, I realize I was desperately searching everywhere for examples of powerful women. What a sense of vindication and triumph I felt when we finally got to Elizabeth I in British history! How I hung on every word uttered by Margaret Thatcher and Jeane Kirkpatrick! How frustrated I was when rebellious female heroines in literature seemed to give in, like Jo in “Little Women.”

There’s another interesting phenomenon I have noticed lately. When I’m channel surfing, I’m far more likely to stop and listen to Condoleezza Rice than President Obama or any other male politician. I think I’m simply more interested in what Rice has to say than any of her male peers because she is more like me. I have never tested this, but I think on some level I am initially more interested or attracted to what women are saying or doing than to what men are saying or doing.

Another example: I am not especially interested in watching sports on TV (except if my Mets are playing!), but I will pause for a few minutes if it’s a women’s team. My friend commented to me a while ago that she thought it was weird that I’m not interested in football, since I’m such a “warlike” person who enjoys “aggression and strategy.” (Yep, that’s what she said.) I realized in a flash that I have never been interested in football because I simply couldn’t identify with the players. I knew from early childhood that girls don’t normally play football, and it’s hard to be interested if you know there’s no chance you’re ever going to be in that situation, or anything remotely resembling it. On some level, I think sports fans imagine themselves playing the game, and that’s what makes it exciting, that feeling on some unconscious level that you could be that guy trying to get the puck in the goal or hit a home run. Women are much less likely to have that feeling about professional sports that are closed to them.

On the other hand, I think that feeling of greater interest in my own sex is more of a first impulse rather than a lasting feeling. I think men and women can identify with each other, be interested in each other’s activities and be inspired by each other. It’s just not obvious at first.

I’m guessing there must be studies out there regarding whether people have a propensity to be more interested in heroes of their own sex. Just based on my own experiences, I believe this tendency exists. I suppose one could think of it as subconscious sexism, but however one labels it, it is more of a problem for women due to the historic power differentials between the sexes. If my hypothesis is correct, young girls and women may be less likely to be initially attracted to certain fields in which there are very few women. That lack of initial interest may hinder the entrance into certain fields by women who might have enjoyed and thrived if they had given it a second look. Having forced myself to sit down and watch a few football games, I now appreciate the intricacies, the strategy and the drama of the game. I spent time totally ignoring football because I didn’t have that initial attraction to it. This subconscious sexism is also a problem for women. It means that men are less likely to be interested in what we think or what we have to say, and men are generally still in most positions of power in society and that could hurt women in general.

As a result of my thinking about all this, I no longer scoff at the importance of female role models, especially in fields where women are underrepresented. I think this greater interest in one’s own sex doesn’t have to mean that men and women have will always be segregated by interests. Once the initial disinclination to identify with the experiences of the opposite sex is overcome, there is no reason that a woman cannot identify with Tom Brady or that a man cannot identify with Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride & Prejudice.” The key is to be conscious of and overcome one’s initial prejudices.