by Alessia Mosca
Seeing is believing and if you have examples you can dream bigger.
Looking at non-stereotypical leaders or role models effectively reinforces change in the culture of equality: if we use more and more (new) words in the debate on gender issues, we can benefit from the stories of women who, through their example, inspire new opportunities for empowerment.
More and more often we read about leadership positions featuring one or more women as protagonists. This is a trend that, in this year that challenged all known parameters, as well as expanding a new vocabulary, cemented our sensitivity towards the way the stories of female leaders who are transformed into role models are told.
Years ago the debate on empowerment was often mediated through claims about preferred terms in Italian: the managing director (l’amministratrice delegata) the minister (la ministra), the rector (la rettrice)… Today we are going a step further, getting at the substance of the matter and this is also thanks to images, which bounce around at unimaginable speed, such as the photo of the Nobel laureates in Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, the first woman at the helm of Citi Bank, Jane Fraser, or the unusual space that president-elect Biden made for his Vice President, Kamala Harris, in his first speech after his victory was confirmed. We walk on the shoulders of those who preceded us, said Harris herself, and these are the examples we build a fair society on.
Cultural revolutions are encouraged by the emulation of those who tried to change the status quo before us. But focusing only on women who have made it to the halls of power, who have won an Oscar or created million-euro businesses, can be counterproductive if, as often happens, they are perceived as role models who are too remote to be emulated. In fact, diversity is achieved through all possible nuances. If internationally acclaimed people affirm the possibility of reaching the top, we also need models that are closer to us: the teacher who inspires critical thinking, the local entrepreneur who manages a company with tenacity, the older student who is successfully completing a course that is not considered ‘typically female’.
With the immediacy of access to information that is guaranteed by technology, offering younger generations new parameters to inspire them is an easily met need. Offering them a greater variety of role models whose achievements are perceived as reachable requires the courage to put one’s face to it. However, inspiring them with a different mindset is an almost natural phenomenon that can be instilled in the family: having a mother who works outside of the home pushes back against the stereotypical thought of ‘think of a manager, think of a man’ and, in the long run, makes women less reluctant to imagine themselves as leaders.
Today, despite clear examples of the trend, the path to gender equality remains arduous and the goal very (very) far away. Progress is being jeopardised by the pandemic and the resulting crisis. Many women remain threatened by a wide pay gap, by all the dangers associated with being economically dependent, by policies that are not suited to retraining women and by a culture that is too full of stereotypes that push women into clearly defined, marginal roles. Not to mention that women found themselves further weighed down by caretaking responsibilities.
To change the culture it is therefore necessary to rethink the work of women, but also the models that are proposed, starting with women’s university educations. While it is true that Mathematics, Science, Finance and digital knowledge are languages that enable a new kind of inclusion, to date half of the population is still behind in this regard, mainly due to mental habits and preconceptions that die hard.