Back when I was an adolescent, I militated against the idea that the lack of female role models in certain disciplines is a problem for young girls. I felt vaguely insulted at the notion that I was expected to identify only with people of the same sex as I. At thirteen, when I had to write an essay about my role models, I made a point of including Leonardo da Vinci as well as Elizabeth I. I felt that there was no reason I shouldn't be just as inspired by or identify just as strongly with a man of achievement as a woman of achievement.
But if I tell the truth, I have to admit that my inclusion of Leonardo, wonderful though he was, was a bit forced compared to my obsession with Elizabeth I and my strong sense of identification with her. And when I look back at my childhood, I realize I was desperately searching everywhere for examples of powerful women. What a sense of vindication and triumph I felt when we finally got to Elizabeth I when my mother and I were reading about the monarchs of England! How I hung on every word uttered by Margaret Thatcher and Jeanne Kirkpatrick! How frustrated I was when rebellious female heroines in literature seemed to give in, like Jo in Little Women.
And there's another interesting phenomenon I have noticed lately. When I am channel surfing I am far more likely to stop and listen to Condoleezza Rice or Laura Bush than the President or any other male politician. I think I am simply more interested in what Rice has to say than in any of her male predecessors because she is more like me. I even often find myself more interested in Laura Bush than male politicians, even though Laura Bush holds no actual power! I have never tested it scientifically, but I think on some level I am initially more interested or attracted to what women are saying or doing than what men are saying or doing.
Another example: I am not especially interested in watching sports on TV -- except I will pause for a few minutes if it's a women's team. My husband commented to me a while ago that he thought it was weird that I am not interested in football since I am such a "warlike" person who enjoys "aggression and strategy." (Yep, that's what he said.) And I realized in a flash that I have never been interested in football because I simply couldn't identify with the players. I knew from early childhood that girls don't play football, and it's hard to be interested in a situation if you know there's no chance you're ever going to be in that situation or anything remotely resembling that situation. On some level, I think sports fans imagine themselves playing the game -- and that's what makes it exciting, that feeling on some unconscious level that you could be that guy trying to get the puck in the goal or hit a home-run. Women are much less likely to have that feeling about professional sports that are closed to them.
On the other hand, I think that feeling of greater interest in my own sex is more of a first impulse rather than a lasting feeling. I think men and women can identify with each other, be interested in each other's activities, and be inspired by each other. But it's just not obvious at first. The movie character with whom I most closely identify is Michael Corleone from The Godfather. I first went to see that movie when I was 19. I had never seen it before that because just looked like a boring movie about a bunch of guys killing each other -- yawn -- but when it was played at my college, I dragged myself to see it because I knew it was a "classic." And boy, just like everyone else in the world, I came away feeling it was the greatest movie ever! And after numerous viewings throughout my 20s, I developed a sense of kinship with Michael. The early parts where Michael is a young goody-two shoes who isn't taken very seriously but then morphs into a practical, intelligent risk-taker seemed to parallel my own professional career (or at least how I like to imagine it!). And who doesn't know exactly how Michael feels when he is going to do his first hit and he's scared to death and he can't find the gun behind the toilet at first! Thus, I overcame my first impulse not to like the Godfather-- but I almost didn't go to the movie at all, and really only did so from a feeling of duty or obligation to see a classic film.
I am guessing there must be studies out there regarding whether people have a propensity to be more interested in heroes of their own sex. Just based on my own experiences, I believe this propensity exists. I suppose one could think of it as sub-conscious sexism, but however one labels it, it is a problem for women due to the historic power differentials between the sexes. If my hypothesis is correct, young girls and women may be less likely to be initially attracted to certain fields in which there are very few women-- and that lack of initial attraction may hinder the entrance into certain fields by women who might have enjoyed and thrived if they had given it a second look. Having forced myself to sit down and watch a few football games with my husband, I now appreciate the intricacies and the strategy and the drama of the game. But I spent more than three decades totally ignoring football because I didn't have that initial attraction to it. This sub-conscious sexism (if my hypothesis is correct) is also a problem for women because it means that men are less likely to be interested in the first instance in what we think or what we have to say-- and men are generally still in most positions of power in society so that's gonna hurt us.
As a result of my thinking about all this, I no longer scoff at the importance of female role models, especially in fields where women are underrepresented. I think this greater interest in one's own sex doesn't have to mean that men and women have to be segregated by interest forevermore. Once the initial disinclination to identify with the experiences of the opposite sex is overcome, there is no reason that a woman cannot identify with Michael Corleone or with Tom Brady, or that a man cannot identify with Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice. (When we watched it this weekend, my husband was groaning right along with me, "Oh God, not him," when Mr. Collins came in to propose to Lizzie.) The key is to be conscious of and overcome one's initial prejudices.