In 2009, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave her now well-known Ted Talk titled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it she warns of the harm that happens when we “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again.” This is how stereotypes emerge, giving a narrow and incomplete story about people, places and ideas, creating the illusion that we already know everything we need to about others.
In my work as the founder and director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project at Utah State University, I have seen the consequences of “a single story.” When we make assumptions about why problems exist, it stops us from seeking the truth and looking for innovative solutions. In the surveys we use for our UWLP research, we often offer multiple answers to each question, and in many cases, we still have a write-in option. It makes calculating results more complex, but we are committed to understanding the many stories that make up women’s lives (and hope to do even better moving forward). The results are often messy but rich, and always deepen our knowledge.
So, I ask that we consider the following single stories and what their implications may be:
- When we think the solution to childcare is that “the wife and mother should just stay home,” we reveal the belief in a single story that, no matter how much we want it to be, is not a reality for many families.
- When we dismiss the harm of the gender wage gap by asserting that it doesn’t matter if women make less because husbands are the breadwinners, that is a dangerous single story. That story makes all sorts of spurious assumptions, the two most obvious being all women are married, and all husbands make enough to support a household. And often our stories are only about white individuals and families as well.
- When we assume that families are composed of a father, mother and children, we ignore the many varied permutations of families.
- When we assume that wages are fair and correlate to merit, that ignores the many stories we know to be true about the history of the wage gap, gender and racial prejudice, and the uncomfortable truths about unconscious bias.
- When we say men are better suited to seek office and enter politics, we are ignoring thousands of counter stories that reveal the benefits that women bring to the table.
Over the next few months, I will delve into these and other single stories that we need to reexamine here in Utah if we are to grow and reach our potential as individuals, as communities, and as a state. We must learn, as Adichie wisely reminds us, that the danger of single stories and stereotypes is not that they are lies, but they are incomplete. They only show one view, one side, one perspective, whereas truth is three-dimensional.
We are all more than just one thing. I am a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a professor, an athlete, an advocate, a white woman, and a Saint, to name but a few of my varied identities. Each one is me, but none of them is all of me.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.