When you cannot see: The Power of Representation

“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it, and I went screaming through the house, “Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.” – Whoopi Goldberg

The power of representation cannot be overstated. It is very difficult to be like or aspire to become someone that you have never heard about or even seen. What we see forms our reality. Although there will always be pioneers, it is a lot easier when you have an example to follow. Someone who has shown you what is possible. Here Ms. Goldberg talks about representation primarily in terms of race, but we can also think of it in terms of gender, religion, culture, personality, body type, and much more.

I am a Christian and have spent a lot of time in churches and other Christian circles. I have noticed that when we look to develop leaders, we take male examples of leadership in the Bible almost exclusively. I realize that female examples do not occur as often or in as much detail, but they are there. And what is there is powerful. Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Huldah, Priscilla and many more stand out as models of what it means to lead in difficult situations, and often in a male dominated, patriarchal world. I have been wondering: Do we miss them because we are trained and otherwise socialized to view leadership only through a male lense? One that traditionally prizes aggression, direct communication, and individuality? Have we worn male glasses for so long that we cannot recognize their gifts and actions as leadership? Or does our theology barricade them as anomalies that God had to use because the right man was not available?

I suppose there could be many reasons. But the consequence of this lack of representation means that we are indirectly, and in some cases directly, inhibiting many, both men and women, boys and girls, from having a real understanding of leadership as something that both genders share and have capacity for. How can women exclaim, as Ms. Goldberg did, that they realize they can be anything they want to be if they never see an example? Instead of drawing on the full realm of possibilities in terms of leadership examples in the Bible, we rely on an anaemic sample that paints a black and white picture of what is, in reality, a rainbow of colour.

Women, in many cases, make up more than half of the population in the church and in Christian organizations today. Let’s take advantage of gender diversity in leadership by challenging these traditions and evaluating our leadership examples and role models. Let’s enable the Whoopi Goldbergs in our circles to scream through all the house, “There’s women in leadership and they ain’t no token!” Let’s allow them to dream and become anything they want to be. Let’s paint a bright, new future.