Strong female role models needed

For years the gender narrative has read that only men can be leaders. This is the same across all professions, from business to government. Though this is changing, it is not changing fast enough, and women are still holding back instead of leaping towards professional leadership roles.

The narrative can be seen in the media and even our educational system. Just decades ago, young girls would be told to follow careers in nursing or education, and that’s if they were to even have a career at all. Today, while more women are in the workplace, it is still hard to find the drive in women that pushes them to be leaders, and a lot of this could be due to the lack of female role models in leadership positions.

Sue Minter, a candidate for Vermont Governor, has found herself amongst all men in the gubernatorial race, and knows the truth about having positive female role models.

“You have to see it to be it. People grow up imagining what they might do when they grow up, and if there aren’t role models to aspire to be like it narrows people’s visions of what’s possible,” said Minter.

If girls don’t have strong female role models growing up, they may not aspire and push themselves to be extraordinary.

Johnson State College President, Dr. Elaine Collins, also sees role models as a vital first step to getting women to be leaders in their desired fields.

“I had very strong female role models in my family, and they always supported my dreams and my interests in my future,” said Collins.

Collins’ early role models included family members who had non-traditional female professions, and she saw this as a push to be a leader.

“Right from the beginning I saw that a professional life was something that was possible and interesting, and that you could make amazing change for people and do good in this world beyond what people traditionally do,” said Collins.

If young girls aren’t able to imagine themselves in leadership roles, and there aren’t enough role models to guide girls to the top, then there must be an external factor that sends messages to girls and is holding them back.

“It comes from every aspect of society that young girls are not conditioned to see themselves as leaders. It’s something that has been carried on in different cultures in different ways,” said Minter. “I think that message comes from so many facets including the media. We can look at women in movies. We can look at the language in movies. We can look at advertising and women’s roles in advertising. Women are not usually driving the cars, but instead displaying the car.”

It is true that in the media and in Hollywood, women are usually second to men. In 2014, females made up only 12 percent of the leading roles of the top grossing films. Instead of leading roles, most female actresses were playing the girlfriend or the wife of a strong main male character. If young girls are looking to the media to find role models, then they are going to have a hard time finding anyone to look up to in strong and prominent roles.

According to Collins, these external factors limit girls’ imagination of what they can be, and the difference they can make. Girls need to be urged from a young age to imagine themselves in any career path, such as president, CEO, or surgeon. This means that even media sources need to change the damsel in distress story to badass ladies saving the day.

Some movies and television series are already going in a new direction. For example, the 2013 Disney movie, “Frozen.” The princesses were their own heroes and saved themselves, proving to girls that they can do anything. Still, there have been too many movies where big boss men run companies and have their trusty female assistants running them their coffee and photocopies. Women deserve leading roles in Hollywood, not just for role equality, but also so women around the world can see females in live action leadership roles.

It’s important to have television producers such as Shonda Rhimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to get Away with Murder.” Rhimes creates strong women characters who are surgeons, lawyers, and firm owners. These characters give young women powerful women to look up to, and remind girls they can have power too, much like these characters.

On the governmental side of equality, the country is years behind the rest of the world in having female leaders, but the television industry is changing before reality. Shows like “Madam President” and “Veep” show female presidents running the country. If, as a culture, we only have narratives displaying men as political leaders, then change will never happen. When girls and young women see television shows casting females as presidents, it will then feel like a more reachable goal for them to also want to be a female president.

Young girls are not the only demographic that often needs help seeing their full potential, and it is possible that even as adults, women get encouraged to not strive to be the best they can be.

“I was encouraged a lot to run for Lieutenant Governor. That it seemed more appropriate for me to not run for the top spot, and I even saw that in myself,” said Minter. “I had to listen harder to recognize the fact that I was more qualified than everyone else in the race, so why would I see myself not running for that top spot? There is that conditioning that we all kinda do, and believe that it is the woman’s job to run for the second spot, which makes it kind of a hard push for the top.”

Minter obviously ignored those who pushed her to run for Lieutenant Governor, but she probably would not be running to be governor if it weren’t for her role model, Governor Madeleine Kunin.

“There have been few role models. Madeline has been the only role model. I think it is the big glass ceiling that still is to be broken,” said Minter.

Minter has been lucky to look up to the only female governor of Vermont, but has also had other strong role models in the Vermont State House, including previous Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, Gaye Symington.

“Gaye was a really important role model for many of us,” said Minter. “Under the time that Gaye was the speaker the number of women in the house increased dramatically. Proving, I think, that role model issue. Once there is someone there you can imagine working with and for, the urge to be there increases.”

Even though there are some great role models already existing in the the sphere of female leadership, it is important to grow the numbers and encourage more women to make it to the top, not only for themselves, but also to show others that anything is possible. Getting strong women to the top has to start in the school system and with the younger generations.

“I think it’s about encouraging young girls and young women to not be bound by ideas of what they should be, but instead be inspired by what they can be. I want to break down those barriers, and again role models are critical . . . Then it is about young girls having access to great education,” said Minter.

From education comes opportunity. Once girls have the imagination to be anything, they need to go out and experience opportunities to push them forward to their careers. President Collins is a strong supporter of job shadowing, especially for girls. Collins currently knows of students who have the opportunity to shadow female leaders in a wide range of professions including health, administration, and hospitality.

“The more that young women are exposed to all types of opportunities the better,” said Collins. “The better that they can imagine themselves as leaders in their fields.”
Job shadowing brings it back to role models that are willing to help young female students find jobs and push themselves to lead.

The barriers that kept women from getting into the workplace have been broken down by previous generations, but there’s still work to do in order to get girls motivated to lead and to believe in themselves. Once every girl across the nation no longer has some external force hindering her imagination of what she can become, then we will have full career and opportunity equality.

“Step up. Don’t be afraid,” said Minter. “Recognize you can do anything, and get involved in whatever your passion is.”