"Who are your heroes? I want you to write them down on a list and the characteristics that you admire about them."
This was one of the questions my girlfriend was asked to respond to when she participated in a small gathering of women that got together to talk about the direction they wanted to take their lives. She looked forward to the meeting and had had an easier time writing out responses to the rest of the questions, but this one challenged her. She couldn't think of any person in her professional life that she would give a hero title and the common figures in history didn't necessarily compel her. Being the diligent and hard working student she's always been, she figured she had to write something. "Well, I guess I would say my mother." She admitted her answer was a bit of a cop out because when she really thinks hard about it, she told me that she actually doesn't have a hero.
She went into the small gathering looking forward to the conversation and meeting the women involved. When the facilitator asked the group of eight women if anyone had a hard time with the list of questions, almost all of them said the toughest question was listing their heroes because none of them felt like they had them.
My mind bounced back and forth with a ton of assumptions to explain how this could be the case. I wondered if a lack of aspirational figures was a reflection of how women are represented in popular culture and how society has constructed gender roles and expectations. Growing up, I have had an abundance of figures in the media that represented my gender.
What's it to me
Now that I am the CEO of an education technology nonprofit that teaches coding in public schools, I am deeply committed to using this role to empower the women we hire and the students we teach. It would be sexiest and naïve of me to extrapolate my experiences and motivations as a man onto the experiences of women. However, as an African American male that grew up in the midst of inner-city poverty, I know how real of an impact institutional and societal forces can have on our decision-making. Even with that understanding, I don't know what it's like to be discouraged from participating in certain activities.
I was intrigued by this incident with my girlfriend, but I felt like I needed to hear the perspectives of more women to see if there was more to it or if I was over-reaching. As a result, I sent a text message to several women I know to ask them a simple question. "Who are your heroes?" A few friends were able to list off a list of people they admired for various reasons, some considered the question personal and somewhat invasive, and many answered the question the same way my girlfriend did.
Gender inequality and the larger disparities in opportunity for women, especially women of color, are well documented. One conversation with my girlfriend and a few female friends about a shortage of hero figures in their lives does not give me the right to suggest an increase in heroes for young girls would achieve gender equality. It does compel me to ask the question to a larger female community.
Who are your heroes?
I'm not suggesting we start an initiative to ensure that every American woman and young girl be able to write down a list of heroes. My greater concern is how a lack of aspirational figures plays out in decisions and career choices. We are constrained as a community and family unit when highly qualified and brilliant women that should be in management roles are in jobs that are below their skill set.
My girlfriend is a strong woman seeking a supportive community of liked minded people to take her career and life to new places. The goal of the meeting was not to come up with heroes, and not being able to list them is only part of the story. Having a hero doesn't erase sexism and glass ceilings, but breaking those barriers is the work of heroes. I'm asking that women showcase their capes to the world and put me to work. I'll follow your lead.