The United States is nearly 245 years old, and Kamala Harris made history when she became the first woman, and the first woman of color, to become Vice President of the nation.
The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica said in her first national address on November 7th, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Representation matters, because it helps break down stereotypes and biases about what a leader looks like, and seeing different types of leaders helps pave the way for more opportunities for others. Still, the statistics show that leaders tend to be white and male.
In nearly 245 years, there have been no women presidents, though women make up more than 50% of the population, and only one Black man has been POTUS, though Blacks make up more than 13% of the U.S. population. Representation in politics matters because it helps shape the public policies that impact our lives.
When we look at corporate America, we see the same image of a leader that is reflected in government. The vast majority of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies remain white and male. The number of women who helm the head of Fortune 500 companies is 7.4% (despite the fact that companies that have women CEOs or CFOs tend to be more profitable and have better stock performance, according to a study from Global S&P Market Intelligence).
Currently there are no Black or Latina women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Representation matters in companies because who sits in the key decision-making role impacts policies surrounding workplace culture, business direction, social impact initiatives and the overall economy.
When we look at the media, this trend continues. The top editors at the most circulated newspapers are 73% men and 90% white, according to The Status of Women in the Media Report 2019. The media is a source of information about the cultural moments that matter, from politics to the environment to social issues to health to technology and more. Representation matters in the media because it shapes which stories get chosen to be covered, how those stories are told, and influences public opinion.
As minorities will be the majority by 2045, according to Brookings, the next generation will continue to push for representation that better reflects the changing U.S. demographics. The first and “only” leaders of today are showing what is possible for the leaders of tomorrow.
A seachange is happening, as the new administration is pledging to appoint a cabinet that “looks like the country,” including:
Rachel Levine, M.D., assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, the first transgender American confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a position in federal government
Lloyd J. Austin, secretary of defense, the first Black American to hold this position
Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee for the head of the Department of Homeland Security, who would be the first Latino and immigrant to lead that department
Right now Kamala Harris is a first and an “only.” She will continue to face obstacles that women and women of color have long faced, such as bias and being held to higher standards, that won’t disappear as soon as she steps into office. But the more people see women and women of color in leadership roles, the more those barriers will be chipped away. As more “firsts” take their places in positions of power, they create the space for the next generation of leaders to follow behind, slowly and over time lessening some of the barriers that the “firsts” faced who paved the way.
Article originally published in Forbes.