In a recent SciShow video, Hank Green pointed out that only four women had ever won a Nobel Prize. One of them, the woman he was featuring, Elizabeth Blackburn, was inspired by one of the previous winners, Marie Curie.
The video got me thinking about representation, and role models, and about why it's a problem that women aren't represented the way men are in most fields. Because even if there weren't huge cultural biases implicitly pressuring everyone who isn't white, cisgender, heterosexual and male, that there's something wrong with them, the absence of representation would still be a huge problem.
I'm confident of this, because I remember what it was like as a kid and a teenager, looking at people I admired and developing a sense of what I felt like I could accomplish. There was, as far as I can remember, no element of my role models' lives that I didn't think was relevant to their success, and that I didn't think said something about how likely I was to succeed. Like, the fact that Edwin Arlington Robinson got published and then fell into obscurity for a while before getting famous again is still one of the most reassuring pieces of information I know.
It was hard for me to find inspiring people to motivate me, to make me feel like I could be successful. And I have loads of privilege and representation to start with. I'm white, male-bodied, American, not incredibly poor -- but I've been insecure about just about everything else. Height, weight, hair and eye color, face shape, personality, reading speed, the location of my school and the hobbies of my friends, and so on.
No one role model helped me get over all those insecurities. Like, knowing Tom Cruise is 5'7" helped me get over a previously strong insecurity about being only average height. Tom Cruise is a role model for literally nothing else to me, and I can't think of anyone else who reassured me about that particular thing.
The huge variety of successful, visible white men gives me and other white, male-bodied people a library of options for ways to feel better about our shortcomings. But to a large extent, that range just isn't available for women and people of color. Fewer are recognized for their success and brought into the spotlight for it, and those who are frequently represent tokenism or stereotype, suggesting to their potential admirers that if you're a person of color or a woman there's some very narrow slot within which you can be successful.