We’ve explored a variety of factors impacting women and minorities in previous articles. These ranged from discrimination and sexual harassment to diversity and intersectionality. This article continues that discussion; this time, on the topic of representation and why it’s important to have it in our institutions and communities.
First, the definition. It has multiple meanings. For example, in a legal sense it means your lawyer or the person who is speaking on your behalf in front of the court. In art, it’s the use of symbols or objects to convey a thought or message. In the context of this series, it’s a “description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way.” My context is why having women and minorities visibly present in your company, church, organization, or governing bodies is important. There are many reasons. Let’s look at two of them: decision making and seeing yourself.
Not being represented in the halls of decision-making means that folks who don’t look like you, or have your cultural or lived experiences, are making those decisions that impact your lives and livelihood. Whether in a corporate board room, federal or state governments, city council or school board; decisions get made daily that impact women and minorities. Pick the issue – or example; it applies. Men making decisions about women’s bodies. Cisgender folks making decisions about use of bathrooms for transgender youth. Non-medical folks making medical decisions. White males making marketing decisions for female products for women of color. The list goes on.
Okay, so let’s put a woman, or a black, or a transgender on the board or committee. That will provide representation and solve the problem won’t it? Maybe it’ll help, but it won’t solve the lack of voice for women and minorities. One reason it doesn’t is because being the “token” face or voice, representing an entire community is fraught with challenges to that person. Research in Sociology at Indiana University has shown that the stress and resulting health problems arise from being “the only X” or token, in groups or organizations heavily dominated by whites or males.
As an example, a female shipmate expressed her frustration as being one of the first women in our service. She had to be twice as good as her male counterparts. Her peers expected her to help them with any “women’s” issue or problem with their subordinates. The command expected her to be on any committee or event pertaining to women in the military. She often had to deal with discomfort in male settings. Was she being evaluated as a woman or discounted because she was a token and not a valuable member of the team? That was exhausting to her; but she also knew it was important that someone was there to speak up too. On top of doing their jobs, they’re expected to educate others on the issues and solve those issues when they’re colleagues just don’t want to deal with it! The bottom line, all too often, is the first this, or that, in an organization encounters these problems and stressors as they are asked to represent their communities.
Representation is also important for seeing yourself! The positive portrayal of diverse folks sends powerful messages. In a military setting, seeing a black or female general or admiral lets the enlisted and junior officers know it’s possible to be accepted and have a meaningful career as you serve your country. Seeing same gender or interracial couples, transgender or gay and lesbian folks positively portrayed in the media is also important. It not only makes folks aware of the diversity of our communities but also allows us to celebrate it! Seeing a CEO in a wheelchair, or a black woman Astronaut, or an openly gay or transgender politician sends powerful messages to those who are differently abled, of color, of a non-conforming gender or sexual orientation.
Thus, representation is important. Having a voice in decision making is important. Having role models and folks that look like you or who share your culture and traditions is important. Breaking barriers, educating, refuting stereotypes and providing positive and visible portrayals of your community is also important. We need to move past the “first this,” or “that” stage, to accomplish true representation. But it starts with one. Eventually representation is widespread enough so that a promotion, acting role, or election of a woman or minority is “no big deal.”
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. She is also a member of the Transgender Journalist Association (TJA). The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references