By Katie Shatzer
“What would you like to be when you grow up?” my mother gently asked one evening as she combed my hair after my bath. “Do you want to be a scientist?”
Images of white lab coats and bubbling green chemicals swam in my mind, neither of which appealed to me. I was around 8 years old, and recently enamored with the musical “Grease,” so I thoughtfully responded, “I want to be a hairdresser.”
The professional merits of a beautician aside, this theme of misguided career aspirations continued as I grew older. When I came to Union, I declared a major in biology, with a double minor in chemistry and Spanish. I planned to become a neurosurgeon — just like the attractive stars of ABC’s hit series, “Grey’s Anatomy.” Clearly, I did not stay this course for long.
The positive connotations of the title “role model” suggest that such a person influences and inspires other people. A limited number of women influenced me as a child and they primarily included my mother, grandmother, teachers, pastors’ wives and fictional characters. Since I entered into adulthood, my influences grew to include professors and older female friends.
While role models for women undoubtedly exist, they are arguably constrained to fewer professions and lifestyles than are men. The women who do venture into traditionally male-dominated arenas remain marginalized, and relatively few women hold positions of high leadership within our society.
Women are senators, CEOs, judges and pastors, but they represent a minority. This means our leadership — on local, state, national and global scales — is unreflective of the population. Broadly speaking, women are not a minority, making up 50.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2008.
This situation can be evidenced on a micro-level, along with the conflicting messages it sends. At Union, the student body consists of more women than men, and almost all students are required to attend at least 14 chapel services each semester.
In the most recent semester, however, one woman spoke, while the names of 19 men appeared on the schedule. Although female students shared about mission trips on two occasions and consistently led the worship portion of the service, no female leaders outside the university were scheduled to speak. This does not detract from the women who were involved in chapel this semester, but serves to illustrate an obvious imbalance.
The belief that God ordained men to lead churches and to preach prevails at Union, in conformity to the Southern Baptist doctrine on the matter. Although this belief can be used to justify the absence of female chapel speakers, it does not account for the clarification reiterated to all students during Focus their first week at Union: Chapel is not a church service.
As a result, the belief that women should not fill positions of leadership in churches translates into a culture that discourages women from stepping up in situations that might look like churches, and few examples of female leaders are presented in this setting. Situations such as this result in a lack of diversity among role models for young women. This places limits upon young women’s conceptions of our own potential.
The reality of this is illustrated in the converse example of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. No matter one’s stance on her political views, Clinton presents an example of a well-educated, passionate woman who continues to build a successful career. Her example has resulted in the so-called “Hillary effect,” which describes the swell in young women and even girls interested in politics, in the United States and abroad.
Many other women, joined Clinton in paving the way for a louder female voice in the political arena. But Clinton’s story stands out because her career has gone to a place no other woman’s has — a few steps away from being elected president of the United States. Although Clinton did not receive the Democratic nomination and the opportunity to be elected president, she came closer than any other woman before her.
In its 82nd year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the first woman the Academy Award for Best Director. Kathyrn Bigelow, director of Best Picture winner “Hurt Locker,” now serves as a role model for women interested in film, demonstrating that women possess equal capacity to direct an outstanding film.
We need female role models in every arena of society, from the traditional place of the home to less conventional workplaces, inspiring women to imagine new roles in which they can flourish. Our responsibility as women lies in taking advantage of our rights and talents and becoming role models.
Rather than lament a lack of good examples, we should celebrate our opportunity to be pioneers in whatever interests us — from ministry, politics and film to education, communications and motherhood.
The importance of including female leaders in our society in a broader way is tied to our recognition and affirmation of women’s potential. In a sense, if we do not value the diverse abilities of women, then we exclude a monumental amount of human potential. We also rob ourselves of the valuable input of female perspectives.
We need to be like my mother, who pushed me to view myself as a scientist, and later a writer — because she knew her cross-eyed, bifocal-wearing daughter would surely be a beauty school dropout.