Role models like Jodie Whittaker and Maryam Mirzakhani are crucial for individuals from underprivileged and underrepresented communities
Sometimes, coming in first is about more than yourself.
The BBC recently said that the next Doctor Who would be played by British actress Jodie Whittaker— the first time in the iconic time traveler’s half century history a woman would take on the mantle. Her ascent comes just as Maryam Mirzakhani, the 40-year-old Iranian mathematician who was the first female recipient of the prestigious Fields Medal, passed from cancer. That both events were viewed as momentous in their own right, underlies how much we still crave for heroes who look like us.
“It’s crucial for us to have role models to aspire to because they inject us with hope,” says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist. “We learn by what we’re exposed to and experience and the media is certainly one very powerful imprint.”
That’s especially true for individuals from communities that traditionally aren’t well represented in certain fields. While role models can be drawn from anywhere, experts say that without exemplaries who resemble themselves, young people may just not consider certain careers entirely. “Girls want to see people who look like them,” says Nikole Collins-Puri, chief executive of Techbridge Girls, which promotes education in the science, tech, engineering and math (STEM) fields for girls from underprivileged backgrounds. “We use them to demystify the narrative that says people in STEM are geeks or lonely. They have a story beyond the 9-to-5.”
Collins-Puri would know: The 38-year-old is the first woman of color to lead Techbridge and in her previous career as an executive at AT&T was often the youngest person or first female to oversee certain projects. She’s been told that this is something that makes it easier for the young women Techbridge works with to relate to her. “The fact that I’m a CEO and African-American woman changes the dynamic when I come into a room,” says Collins-Puri, who grew up in a single parent home.
There are also significant financial consequences to having someone to look up to. According to a 2014 report from the Department of Education, STEM college majors had an average starting salary of $65,000, or almost 25% higher than those in non-STEM fields. “If we want economic equity for women, we have to ensure girls get the tools to do their work,” says Erin Hogeboom, community development and network strategy manager at the National Girls Collaborative.
— COVERGIRL (@COVERGIRL) October 11, 2016
On the plus side, the barriers to becoming a pioneer in any field are probably lower now than in decades past. Among the wave of the past decade: Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota became the first Muslim American elected to the U.S. Congress in 2007, while makeup brand CoverGirl named social media star James Charles its first male ambassador. Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination last year, while Sarah Palin in 2008 became the first female vice presidential candidate in the Republican Party’s history. Meanwhile, CBS News’ Elaine Quijano last year became the first Asian-American to moderate a national politics debate when she hosted the standoff between then vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine.
That said, being a pioneer isn’t always easy. “People have a preconceived notions previously established by the predecessor [so] the new kid on the block will be burdened by unfair preexisting biases,” says Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent.” “Unless the new role model hits it out of the park and creates an even better role model, the newbie has a high mountain to climb.”
“The way I look at it, I’m setting the path for more to come behind me,” says Collins-Puri. “But if I mess up, am I messing it up for others too?” She says she personally deals with the pressure by building a strong network around her who’s able to point out her mistakes and offer feedback early. “I’m real clear about what I am, in a way that’s unapologetic,” she says.
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