Kamala Harris as next US Vice President: What it means for women’s morale everywhere

Kamala Harris Kamala Harris (Image: File pic)

Today, I make an uncharacteristic detour from viruses and other morbid topics. I will focus, instead, on American politics and the US Elections 2020. It is, after all, a historic day. With Joe Biden named as the US President-elect,  Kamala Harris will be the Vice President of the United States of America. In a list of firsts, Kamala is also the first female Vice President of America.

I don’t think myself qualified enough to comment on where she stands on important policies. But I will talk about what Kamala Harris’ ascent to one of the biggest offices in the world would mean for women everywhere.

But first, let me start by telling you about Dana Scully from The X-Files.

Gillian Anderson as the sceptical doctor and FBI agent in the hit series spurred something known as  “The Scully Effect”.

According to a study by the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, women who watched The X-Files were 50% more likely to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) fields.

If fictional characters can inspire so much, can you imagine the power of real female role models?

Studies say female role models can motivate girls and women in traditionally male domains such as STEM, athletics, management and, yes, even politics. ‘‘I travelled 1,500 km with my baby to join India’s fight against COVID-19’

So in all probability, a woman in the Vice President’s seat of the world’s most powerful country will give a major fillip to women’s morale all over the world. Let’s count all the ways.

A Sense of Belongingness

Firstly, women feel an increased sense of belonging and self-confidence when they see female role models succeeding, according to a 2017 study by Dennehy and Dasgupta. In the study, the researchers found out that female mentorship helped in protecting women’s belonging and confidence, which, in turn, helped them stick to their careers.

Success seems attainable

Strong female role models can assure women that success is attainable. In a 2010 study by Asgari et al., frequent high-quality interactions with female members “predicted stronger implicit self-conceptions of leadership and more career ambitions.”

If Dana Scully can, so can I

Similarly, a 2013 study by Simon and Hoyt found that when women see fictional women like Dana Scully in male-dominated fields, they were more likely to believe in strong non-traditional gender roles, and have less negative self believes and stronger leadership ambitions.

Role models make better female leaders

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Latu et.al. discovered that looking at a picture of a strong female model is enough to improve performance in women. True Crime is a girl’s best friend.

In an interview published in ResearchGate, lead researcher Ioana Latu said that they experimented with placing the picture of a male role model and then a female role model on an empty wall. They then studied the effect the images had on men and women giving persuasive speeches.

When women saw the picture of a male icon on the wall, they underperformed. Conversely, they performed well, giving longer and better speeches, when they saw the image of a female role model.

“Having visible female role models inspires women to perform better, changing negative stereotypes that we have about women in the workplace,” said Latu.

Female leaders show how it’s done, literally

A 2019 study in the journal Sex Roles also explored how the actual visibility of female role models may produce empowering effects.

People mimic each other’s body language to express liking, build friendship and produce appropriate responses to a situation.

Women, when they mimic actual nonverbal behaviours of their role models, can exhibit more empowered behaviour and enhanced performances, according to the researchers.

“Essentially, female leader role models can show women how to behave in challenging situations—how to speak, stand, or move,” read the study.

However, there’s also a counter effect

There’s also evidence that women exposed to other highly successful women may have the opposite effect. Female super achievers also have a deflating effect, making women think they can never achieve the same degree of success.

Right now, Harris joins the ranks of powerful female world leaders like Angela Merkel, Mette Frederiksen and Jacinda Ardern. These women have proved that women can be agents of change, bringing in their own unique brand of leadership to politics.

Leaders like Kerala health minister KK Shylaja and New Zealand PM Ardern have had a significant edge over their male counterparts while dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. This only goes to show how much the world can benefit from female leadership.

But it’s also true that women are underrepresented in politics. According to unwomen.org, female leadership has only registered an 11.3 per cent increase in 2019 since 1995.

“I may be the first woman in the office, but I won’t be the last because every little girl watching sees that it is a country of possibilities”, said Kamala Harris

Here’s hoping that Harris’ ascent can inspire more women to consider a career in politics.