Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Representation Matters - And there's Data to Prove it.

It must have been groundbreaking when little girls in Saudi Arabia saw themselves represented for the first time in the realm of international sports competition at the 2016 Olympic Games. Imagine seeing someone that looks just like you at the highest echelon of sport, with crowds cheering for you, and your lookalike is smiling wildly, bearing all your country's colours. Imagine all that excitement in the growing mind and heart of an 11-year old Saudi girl, watching this unfold for the very first time.

A few years later, this happened. 

For a long time, representation was a squishy notion, lauded by social-justice advocates and decried by economists in favour of 'hard data'. Scores of new studies are demonstrating its importance and how effective a tool it can be in combatting sexism and racism and empowering young people to push past traditional and stereotypical boxes and into new roles. Although representation is slowly getting the recognition it deserves, it remains only barely included in broad social policy outside of gender quotas on boards or within political representation and in some areas of the military, depending on the country. 

Representation is the simple idea that when little boys and girls see themselves at different levels of society, in different roles and with different skillsets, it raises their awareness that they too can become President, a scientist, a lawyer, a software developer. This is especially true of youth, women and people from minority groups, who have historically been disadvantaged and blocked from entering into more prestigious fields.

The idea that we are influenced by what we see, even at a superfluous level, is no longer a mystery: we see around 4 000 ads per day, and these distort how we think of ourselves, affect our beauty standards, our sexual preferences, and shape our views on race, ethnicity and sex. Socially, we remain deeply influenced by signs and symbols, where our flags, national anthems, style of dress, our cars, our addresses and our credit cards are symbols of class and denote and promote adherence to different social groups with changing levels of power and prestige. Facebook and Instagram are perfecting the algorithms that have us acting against our best interests, all because of what we see and how this activates the varying impulses in our brains - something the sugar industry has been doing for decades.

That representation matters and can motivate behaviour, therefore, should not be a shock. A recent 2018 groundbreaking study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the US Census Bureau on class, race and mobility in the United States has shown that despite the finding that "black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighbourhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds," the few neighbourhoods (tragically, only about 1%) where lower-income black boys did do well, also held a high presence of black fathers in the community. This buoys parts of a 2015 study from Harvard that found that the 1990's Clinton initiative "Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing", which gave low-income families living in public housing vouchers to move to middle-income neighborhoods, resulted in children from those families growing up to earn higher incomes and attend college at higher rates than their peers in public housing. Twenty years later, it mattered that low-income children were given the opportunity to see that life could be better, their aims could be higher - and the younger these children were moved, the higher they achieved. 

A 2017 study on invention and inventors, conducted by a mix of researchers from MIT, Harvard and the London School of Economics, found, among many other racial, class and sex-based findings, that growing up to be an inventor is gender-specific: girls are far more likely to be inventors of the inventors in their city are female, and the city has to have inventors in the first place, for children from that city to want to become one. A 2012 US nation-wide study of girls using a national sample group also found that of the girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math, 47% say they would be uncomfortable being the only girl in the class, and expect that they will have to work harder than a boy to be recognized for their work. Recommendations from this study indicated that meeting or being shown women who have overcome obstacles and succeeded in their fields will uncover for girls their own paths to success.

In the political realm, we are inundated with data from North America and Western Europe, but even in smaller political bodies, representation matters. In India in 1993, when gender quotas were phased in to village councils nationwide, 2012 studies showed that the provinces that first implemented the quotas were found to have higher levels of women participating in politics, higher involvement of schoolgirls in diverse school classes, better exam scores for girls and less time spent on domestic chores by girls in the home. What's more, both the parents of the girls and the girls themselves began to believe there are more opportunities for girls outside of the household and that girl's abilities have value.

While data is still coming out, it is safe to say that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton being elected as the Democratic candidate to the Presidency of the United States in created a tidal wave of women entering into politics in the aftermath of the 2016 election. Also a reaction to Trump, cross-cutting issues are at play. Topics generally ignored during election cycles were in the news: sexual harassment, gender bias, sexism and misogyny. Hillary Clinton raised the bar for women, and the sexist backlash she endured, from Trump, from his supporters, from the media and from the Republican Party threw down the gauntlet, galvanizing women to run for office in numbers never seen before.  

In honour of the recent death of Linda Brown, we go back even further to the US Supreme Court Case in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education. In this case, the NAACP sought to demonstrate that the 'separate but equal' clause of the Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 decision that legitimized school segregation was inherently discriminatory and unconstitutional.  The Warren Court's unanimous decision in favour of the NAACP was influenced to some degree by the findings of the Kenneth and Mamie Dolls Study, where little black and white boys and girls were asked questions about two dolls, one black, one white. Which doll is stupid? Which is bright? Which doll is beautiful? Which is ugly? Which is bad? Which doll is good? With little surprise, the children's answers followed racial lines. Finally, the last question: Which doll are you? Here, little black children either refused to choose a doll, chose the white doll, or chose the black doll with remorse. Representation within good schools, with positive traits and valued abilities mattered - this was the conclusion of a 2004 study by Columbia University that found that desegregation "made the vast majority of students who attended these schools less racially prejudiced and more comfortable around people of different backgrounds." Unfortunately, the larger society remained more racially divided, which made the re-entry after high school far more segregated. 

On screen, it's not news that advocates have been decrying the poor representation of women and minorities in media for decades, but it is disappointing how little has changed. In 2015, the University of California found that in over 400 top movies and TV shows, people of colour held just a quarter of all speaking roles in 2015 (though they represent around 40% of the American population), and in 2016, women made up less than one third of all protagonists (though they represent over half of the population of the United States). In 2017, that number fell. Even when the very few movies with diverse casts and female leads break box office records, Hollywood blockbusters remain dominated by white men. This underscores the importance of having a diverse cast behind the camera, those with the scripts, the directors, casting agents and the purse-string holders, that through their influence can demonstrate the cascading effects that representation can have throughout an entire industry (hence Frances MacDormand calling for inclusion riders at the 2018 Oscars).

The opposite of representation is also of consequence. In the 1976 study "Living with Television", researchers wrote that representation in the world of TV fiction denoted existence, and the lack of representation meant "symbolic annihilation". Put more simply: Do I matter enough to exist? Does society value me enough to put me on screen? And when I am put on screen, am I allowed the full breadth of existence - or am I caricatured, stereotyped and made to represent the more negative tropes of the group to which I belong (thereby also lifting the status of other groups)? 

These questions remain relevant when children look to the top echelons of society, to the most valued people in their communities, cities and states, to the most sought after jobs, the best paid posts, to the sectors that are the most interesting, most far-reaching, that are seen around the world, and provide most opportunity for upward mobility. As they turn their gaze to these groups and ask themselves: Can I see myself within these fields? Is there someone who looks like me in this field? Is there a role model I can look to? data is demonstrating that to effectively tap into this large pool of unused resources and talent, from predominantly women and people from minority backgrounds, the answer has to be yes.

When political parties propose having their state or country be at the forefront of innovation, or seek to move toward gender equality, be on the cutting edge of medical research, or eradicate the deep-seated effects of racism, these questions and this growing body of research should come to mind.  As we understand the benefits of representation, the widespread use of quotas as an interim equitable measure, combined with funding, resources and awareness campaigns should be mainstreamed into job and wealth creation at policy level. Role models from communities upward should be prioritized. Industry culture and hiring processes must be dissected to understand the obstacles preventing more girls and children from minority backgrounds from becoming interested and participating in each field, especially traditionally male dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Representation is no longer a feel-good area of social justice. Policy should reflect  this accordingly, lest we risk the great loss of untapped pools of burgeoning human potential.  

The mother of little Parker Curry, the girl in the photo above, staring mesmerized at the portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, writes: "It's important to me that I raise daughters who have the opportunity to see women who look like them doing great things. Only by being exposed to brilliant, intelligent, kind black women can my girls and other girls of color really understand that their goals and dreams are within reach."

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