Meet the newest role models for female innovators


President Obama applauds Janet Yellen, his nominee for Federal Reserve chairman. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

This has been a huge week for female innovators. Not only was Janet Yellen named as the first-ever female chairman in the 100-year history of the Federal Reserve, but also SNL announced that Sasheer Zamata would become the first black female cast member on the show since 2007. By helping to break the glass ceiling for women in two widely different fields, both Yellen and Zamata are playing an important role in changing how we think about the gender gap in fields far beyond just economics or entertainment. And that’s good for the future of American innovation.

Janet Yellen and Sasheer Zamata will become role models for the next generation of innovators, encouraging young girls and women to try their hand at careers that were previously closed to them. Girls pondering whether or not to study economics will look at the example of Janet Yellen, analyze her career trajectory and realize that if they study hard enough in school, they can eventually make it to the top. It’s not just guys resembling Alan Greenspan, Paul Volcker or Ben Bernanke who get to run the economy.

This is a bigger factor than you might think. No matter how far you lean in, it doesn’t matter if there’s a glass ceiling in place to keep you from leaning too far.

This Feb. 11, 2008 photo provided by Cate Hellman Photography shows actress Sasheer Zamata. Zamata, 27, from Indianapolis, will join the cast of
Sasheer Zamata will join the cast of Saturday Night Live. (Cate Hellman/AP)

Companies in industries currently facing a gender gap would do well to study the examples of Yellen and Zamata. Creating new role models can have a dramatic impact on the pipeline for new talent in fields where women have been historically underrepresented. The best examples are the STEM fields, where educators have searched for years to find ways to attract girls to study science, technology, engineering and math. The current consensus is that girls do not feel welcome within these fields. However, once they have role models, that all changes. Suddenly, women see themselves as not just rank-and-file workers, but also as executives and board members.

Once they are in these decision-making roles, women can bring their unique perspectives to problems in creative new ways that aren’t always possible when there’s an “old boys’ network” in place. Innovation always flourishes in the presence of maximum diversity, whether it’s sports or entertainment or business or technology. When there is sexism or ageism or racism, then there are artificial constraints placed on the amount of innovation that can occur since certain perspectives are ignored and certain voices are silenced, to the detriment of the organization. 

With this in mind, consider the example of Janet Yellen and how having a woman in charge might help to shape the future of the economy. Having a woman at the helm of the economy could lead to new thinking about ways to address the persistent wage gap differentials between men and women in nearly every field, new thinking about how to help out single mothers trying to survive in a tough economy, or new ways to understand the needs and desires of the average American household. In the past, Yellen has shown the ability to think in different ways than her male colleagues, especially when it came to the housing boom and the subprime loan crisis. 

The future of American innovation is based on the ability of this nation to present a welcoming environment for everyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or race. Yellen and Zamata, by helping to break the glass ceiling for women, are doing their part to ensure that women will play an important future role in American creativity and innovation.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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