Heroines and Role Models

Recently I had a rather upset email from a younger colleague who was worried because she had publicly disagreed with me in a discussion and feared she had been ‘strident’.  What made it worse, she said, was that I had been something of a scientific heroine for her and she clearly was bothered that this made it inappropriate for her to express any disagreement. Well, no, she was absolutely right to do so if I was wrong, and certainly in the case in point I had – at the very least – been sloppy and she was simply correcting my inaccuracy. She hadn’t been strident, or inappropriate in any way and it wasn’t a problem for me – nor should it have been. But I’m flattered she thought of me as a heroine, perhaps even more so than if she had described me as a role model.

Early in one’s life/career, having role models – possibly also heroines/heroes – matters to many people (though equally, plenty of people manage perfectly well without). Individuals whom you’d like to be like, succeeding in ways you’d like to succeed, doing things you aspire to do, or simply giving you a glimpse of possibilities even if they still seem unimaginably far away.  Exactly who anyone selects for their role model is a combination of opportunity (whom you come across) and personality.  But problems can arise later when, as is probably inevitable, you realise these role models have feet of clay. They may be succeeding in ways you’d like to succeed, but when you finally meet them you discover they are jerks. If they’re doing things you once aspired to do, it may turn out that your aspirations were hopelessly misplaced given your own skills. Perhaps it is easiest to retain them as role models – possibly long after you really need them –  if they simply served the purpose of opening your eyes to options in your future life. You don’t have to like them as individuals, they only have to have expanded your horizons.

But in some instances, heroines (or indeed heroes) and role models can ultimately have a detrimental effect, not only or necessarily because of anything they do themselves, but because of the effect any pedestal-placing can have on those who place them on that pedestal. Thus, I have known individuals who feel unable ever to believe they are able to challenge a previous mentor, head of department or senior colleague even when they have reached a position of seniority themselves; in order to break this spell distance – geographical probably – is required. It is extremely hard to turn around a hierarchical relationship into one of equality.  But ultimately it is necessary for one’s academic health.

There is also the possibility that the role model can actively be unhelpful, by smothering the individual’s opportunities if they come too close. In this category I would place those senior individuals (I’ll call this person, who could be male or female, Professor Uncaring, Prof U for short) who may be able to attract many bright youngsters to work with them but then, far from nurturing them or making sure their careers develop and flourish, simply use them. The commonest form in which I think this occurs is for them to be used as drudges to produce the results requisite for Professor Uncaring’s own greater glory. Prof U does this without giving credit where it is due by not ensuring the hardworking Dr Drudge is the first named author on the high profile papers which are produced or facilitating the person who did all the work presenting it at relevant conferences. If Dr Drudge’s career is to develop, they may find it is possible only if they continue to fit into whatever role Professor Uncaring thinks is appropriate: this may require continuing to work within Prof U’s ambit, merely picking up any crumbs tossed in their direction.  They may find it impossible to do anything else, if Prof U’s arm is long enough to prevent the newly appointed lecturer/research fellow getting grants to continue to develop the work they themselves started, because the prof wants to keep it as if it were genuinely their own brainchild. Thus staying within the role permitted by Prof U may appear to be a fruitful strategy in the short term, indeed the only safe one to pursue, but if they have any guts and gumption at all, ultimately Dr Drudge must strike out on their own and not remain a drudge permanently, even if in a tenured post.  This would be an extreme example, but one that I have seen more than once in different places. Sometimes it is less malicious/self-serving than this description implies, simply driven by the fact that Prof U is unseeing rather than uncaring, so convinced of their own rectitude and brilliance that they expect the lesser mortals around them to fall into their grand cosmic plan.

So, by all means choose a heroine/hero, find a role model to act as inspiration to guide you through early career stages. But do not be fooled these individuals should stay as a guide indefinitely or can never be contradicted. Success means many things, but one part of it is having the courage of your convictions. Welcoming help where it is genuine, rejecting it where it is tainted or too possessive, and never looking at senior individuals through rose-tinted glasses just because they are senior.  Choose your role models, your heroines and your heroes wisely, and dispense with them – or better turn them into valued colleagues – once the time is ripe, which may be sooner than you think.

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11 Responses to Heroines and Role Models

  1. Yes, have to say I’ve seen a good few “Professor U” types in my years in the biz, and heard of many more.

    A sort of sub-group of the Prof U (or perhaps Venn-diagram overlapping) is the people who have super-favourites within the lab that get the “favoured protege, talked up as future star’ gig, whilst others, of at least equal worth from others’ perspectives, toil away in the Dr Drudge role. I’ve noticed this several times with labs run by academic clinical scientists, where there is often a definite kind of caste system separating the star proteges (usually bright young medics doing a research stint) and the Dr Drudges (almost always PhD types who have to tell the bright young medics what to do).

    And then you get the labs where one of the people in the lab becomes, at some point, the Prof’s significant other. Which is probably the stuff of novels…though I’ve seen real examples. Messy.

    • I work in such a place and it’s been fine… for the past ten or eleven years or so. I know of another one across the street that was similarly ok. But I agree that these are probably the exceptions to the rule.

  2. Jules Evans says:

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    I think we set people up as ideals to measure ourselves against, but that means we sometimes go gunning for them, to see if we can exceed them – like teenagers railing against their parents.

    I’ve had that experience myself – people moving from idealising me to suddenly attacking me – and it’s because they have abstracted me into an ideal – or an idol – which they then try to exceed and overcome. It can be a little discomforting, because they’re not treating you as a flesh and blood imperfect human being… but Im sure I’ve done the same thing myself.

  3. Surely one of the greatest compliments you can pay someone is to disagree with them.

  4. cromercrox says:

    On reading your post I was wondering about the difference between a role model and a mentor, and I think it is this – a mentor is an inspirational person with whom you have a close personal relationship, and a role model is someone you admire from afar. A good mentor will remain good despite (or even because of) personal foibles. But role models met in person are always likely to disappoint. I often look askance at competitions in which the first prize is an afternoon with your fabourite sports personalty/pop star/TV presenter/guru. Will the winner actually find such a meeting rewarding – quite apart from how the recipient of such idolatry might feel about it? Perhaps the second prize, in the small print, is TWO afternoons spent with the sports star or whoever.

    I think the difference between mentor and role model becomes crucial in cases where it is said in the news, for example, that this or that group of people require role models, when mentors is what is meant.

  5. John the Plumber says:

    This post hits an immediate nerve.

    I am an erstwhlie scientist who has studied evolution in my spare time for forty years and I just might have something to contribute – so you guys are my heroines heroes and role models – qualified scientists dancing at the cutting edge – the sharp dangerous pointy bit – whilst the fans merely stumle to join.the dance.

    The essence of a hero is surely someone who has grasped the risks and succeeded – maybe oblivious to those merely in the crowd..

    A mentor though is someone who has well honed the cutting edge and is prepared to lead her “young coleague” with care through the dangers, maybe to a new cutting edge – which you seem to be admirably doing Athene. – But whether the dangers are real, the fear certainly is – the clue here is in your friends “strident voice”.

    I know the fear – I have been reading everyones blogs here for quite a few weeks – I have written many comments – but I fear to click the ‘post comment’ button in case youl all see me as a fool – so they’ve not been sent. – At least Athene’s colleague stood up to be counted – good luck to her..

    However – I’m a plumber – and a tiler – and that’s where I am at the cutting edge – I can lay tiles like they were blocks of mirrored marble with joints scribed by a needle point and a surface more accurate than an observatory lens. Now, has everyone seen Cromercox’s tiling in his new kitchen (if not go to his blog forthwith) it’s quite beautiful – rustic maybe but absolutely stunning – stupidly though Cromercrox is apologetic that he has not got it straight.

    Clearly then, from the point of view of tiling, Cromercrux would see me as a role model hero – but from a scientific point of view it is I who see him as a role model – and a hero too if I must.(My heroes are James Bond and Bugs Bunny.) – But here’s the crunch. – If I was his mentor (and I have learned all there is to know about conventional tiling and practiced the same thing for an orrible fifty years) I could lead him to tile the flattest plainest tiling in the land – but then where would inspired originality be.

    Mentors then, particularly scientific ones, must walk a fine line treading softly where they lead.

    Now I’ve got to face the fear and hit the post comment button, inspired by a certain ‘young colleague’.

  6. Interesting comment stream developing on the difference between a mentor and a role model. It seems to me a mentor absolutely has to have some personal dimension to it, usually (but in this internet age not necessarily) face to face. It certainly is 1:1 and with dialogue in both directions. A role model can be a celeb (for many youngsters), someone totally remote whom you don’t usually expect to meet but might do. A hero/heroine might be someone you know or someone you merely admire for what they’ve done from afar so could have a bit of both attributes in my view.

    The situation I was trying to describe with Prof U was the one where they are a role model initially (say during your 1st or 2nd degree) and then, because of that, you go to join their wonderful research team. At that point you find out what the U stands for, and you are squeezed into the Dr Drudge role if you’re not careful. That is not uncommon I fear, perhaps less so in Physics (where large research groups aren’t as common as in some other sciences), perhaps less so in the UK than in more hierarchical societies. But Professors aren’t necessarily chosen for their nurturing attributes (a point that I will make more of in tomorrow’s post!) and I think many are unseeing as much as uncaring although the consequences may not be that different.

    John the Plumber, welcome! I’m delighted you’ve faced your fear and pressed the post button. It’s good to hear views from outside the science system, and to know that I’m striking a chord. It is also good to be reminded whatever our skills in one direction, scientists may lack them in another – be it tiling, nurturing or many other useful lifeskills. Dialogue between different specialists is so important (it’s why I love being an interdisciplinary scientist). I agree it is a fine line between mentoring and remaining a distant hero/heroine, and equally I think it is important mentors know when to let go. The best ones do, but some neither let go of the individual nor the associated research and that is (at least one point) where the problems arise.

  7. Heather says:

    I’m also glad to hear from John the Plumber (who expresses himself uncommonly well).

    “Clearly then, from the point of view of tiling, Cromercrux would see me as a role model hero – but from a scientific point of view it is I who see him as a role model – and a hero too if I must.(My heroes are James Bond and Bugs Bunny.)

    I’ve had an interesting discussion about what a “hero” means to me, recently. I’d be glad to hear about what it means to other people. I’ve got a handle on mentor versus role model thanks to this thread, and agree it has to do with proximity.

    “But here’s the crunch. – If I was his mentor (and I have learned all there is to know about conventional tiling and practiced the same thing for an orrible fifty years) I could lead him to tile the flattest plainest tiling in the land – but then where would inspired originality be.”

    I don’t think that being an excellent mentor in the skill set one possesses means that you must quash all originality. I’m a firm believer in knowing the rules to better break them later. This seems to be at the root of the best of the modern artists, at least those in the Tate Modern, the last crop whose work I have seen recently. Certainly (and this is also from another comment thread on some blog I’ve read recently) Picasso, as original as he was later, was able to express his originality in entirely conventional terms, very skilfully, early in the development of his career.

  8. Heather says:

    P.S. The defining characteristic of a hero, to me, is courage.

  9. Heather
    I would have thought a mentor’s role – in tiling, science or anything else, is showing someone those thinigs that might work and then encouragement to the mentee to find their own feet. In science, you can train people to follow some procedure or analysis, but what they do and what they choose to study is then their own choice; I’m not sure I’d call that a mentors role, though. It seems to me mentors often are there to give the more subliminal messages – where to go to for help, what the unwritten rules are for where they’re working, or what they need to do to get to the next stage. I’m not sure quite how that translates into tiling, but presumably it is the same sort of thing to free up originality in patterns?

    And I’d agree hero/heroine usually implies courage, standing up for something or someone or doing things differently bucking the trend.

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