To Be or Not to Be a Role Model

When you grow up what do you want to be? That is a familiar enough question but I’ve never heard of anyone who expected the answer to be ‘a role model’. Yet there are those who have an expectation that women who become visible in the hard sciences should automatically step up to the mark to help the next generation. Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of women supporting other women, wherever they may be in the hierarchy, but I worry that the expectation of acting as a ‘role model’ is just another burden placed on those who may feel they have had quite enough dumped on them already.

Donna Strickland, she of the recent Nobel Prize in Physics, has incurred ire in some quarters for not immediately assuming the mantle of champion for other women. She would appear, from the interviews of hers that I have read, to have avoided some of the misogyny, the vitriol and the condescension and much worse that many women – in STEM and just about everywhere – have suffered. We may feel that she is either unbelievably lucky or blind but it still does not mean, in my opinion, that she has to speak up for those who have so suffered. Has anyone suggested that either of the men who shared the prize with her should suddenly assume some new responsibility (be it role model or anything else) while they are probably still digesting the fact that yes, they did actually win?

If Marie Curie (dead and therefore voiceless) can be consistently held up as a role model for aspiring female scientists, can Donna Strickland not be allowed to assume the same voiceless part? Let us celebrate that finally a third woman has received what, to many, is seen as the ultimate accolade of a Nobel, without making her life harder by loading her with the responsibility of inspiring future scientists or cheering up those who are suffering under bad management surrounded by rotten colleagues. Her image can be used in classrooms up and down the land without needing her personally to follow the image into the schools. She needn’t describe bad experiences that others have suffered if she herself has had an easier path to success merely to remind others that women frequently do get a raw deal. After all, authenticity and integrity matter and if she is simply uttering other people’s stories she isn’t likely to be all that inspiring after all.

Being the woman who is meant to inspire other women does not come at zero cost. It requires both time and energy; time which many researchers would rather devote to their labs or their students, energy that may be in short supply given the vicissitudes of academia. I was struck by the reaction of a younger colleague of mine when she had just faced her first audience of would-be university applicants, all female, as she told them her life story. Wow, she said, it was just so exhausting. And it is, to give of oneself, to make a narrative and to relive parts of one’s life that may not always have been pleasant (if one is honest, and has had bad experiences). Of course sometimes it is imperative to warn the scientists-of-the-future that life will have setbacks (whether because of one’s gender or not), that research does not go in a straight line and not all one’s colleagues are angels. That is the reality and if reality is what is wanted to inspire, then it’s going to come at a cost for the speaker. Others should not assume that all senior women are cut out to do this, that they all want to do this, or that they all should do this.

It would be convenient, it might even be helpful for the next generation, if every woman stepped up to the mark. It might make others feel good. But at what price? If their science suffers because this is just another task imposed on women that men do not have to undertake, it adds up to just yet one more bit of ‘academic housekeeping’ of which women already get more than their fair share. I would be more convinced this was useful if the evidence was clear, but in fact it is distinctly nuanced on the true impact of role models. People assume it must always be a good thing, but if you read this article from the US you may realise it simply isn’t that straightforward.

Perhaps before we put an expectation on every woman who’s made it just a little way up the greasy academic ladder that they need to get out there and champion other women and bare their souls about the horrors they may (or may not) have faced, we should – as good scientists – take a harder look at the evidence. There are, apparently (I direct you to another paper in the Psychology literature on role models in general) more and less effective ways of having a positive effect. Just having a stream of women entering the classroom and saying ‘all girls should consider studying STEM’ is not going necessarily to change the percentages taking Physics A level. Having successful women stand up and say look at me, I’ve won this massive prize and if you just work harder then you too might get plaudits, may lead as much to an inferiority complex, reinforcing impostor syndrome and a feeling of ‘I’m not like that’ as to inspiration.

Each and every woman, successful or not, should be allowed to make their own decisions as to which tasks they take on. They should not feel they have to do something just because others would find it desirable. This applies as much to whether they should do pastoral work, sit on the childcare committee or engage in public engagement because there is a shortage of colleagues (male) who are willing or asked to take these roles on, as to the expectation of being a role model. Any women can be one simply by doing the best they can, permitting their images to be used in glossy departmental brochures and winning prizes to remind other folk women are good at their subject. They do not need to put up their hand to give endless talks to audiences about their life story to the detriment of their careers and science. They do not need to remind the world they have had it hard, particularly if they have not as Donna Strickland implied, and if they would rather not.

As someone who has given more narrative talks than I would care to remember, as someone who I think would be regarded as a champion of women, I would say the best way to champion women is not to put expectations on any single woman that would not be expected of a man. I would remind readers that taking an active role in this sphere can sometimes feel overwhelming and exhausting, even if rewarding. I am happy to see a third woman win the Nobel Prize in Physics. I am happy that she should enjoy the rewards of that prize without being told she is letting the side down because she doesn’t immediately see the need to put herself into the media as a woman’s champion.

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3 Responses to To Be or Not to Be a Role Model

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    Thank you for articulating so well exactly what I thought when I read the very ungracious article criticising Donna Strickland that you refer to.

    I recently sat on a panel at a suffragette-themed event for women in science: we, and the audience, were asked to make a a public pledge of what more we would do for women in science. The organisers, who had gone to the trouble of printing little cards for us to write our pledges on, seemed surprised when people explained why they didn’t like the idea very much, for the reasons you give.

  2. Stephen Eichhorn says:

    This raises some really important issues. The burden of responsibility for gender equality issues in departments is often put onto women – as if it is their problem. This is everyone’s problem, and more men should take the time to go and listen to the issues and then try to raise them in those departments/faculties etc. Working in this field is tiring for those effected. I hear that from the women I have talked to. We, as men, don’t come into these discussions as equals as we have an enormous privilege and advantage. More recognition of this is needed too, and also that we should not use the process of change to assert our authority too. It has to be partnership. But as men in this we have to recognise we don’t come at it from the same place. The “isms” are power plus prejudice, and that battle against the power structure must be tiring. It’s time we (men) should make that easier by taking more of that burden on.

    • Katerina says:

      Very nicely articulated. We recently ran a co-creation workshop “breaking barriers for women in science”. We were 38 participants but only 5 men -and not for lack of trying to make it more balanced. (in Cyprus)

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