Are role models useful? What should they look like (metaphorically rather than literally; I’m not channelling dizzy blond here)? And how should they describe themselves? A recent article entitled ‘Successful women do not always make the best role models’ in the Financial Times on this subject – written more about city women than scientists, but I believe the same points would apply – stated
‘The experience of much-written-about “superwomen”, such as fund managers Nicola Horlick and Helena Morrissey in the UK, or Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook in the US, can sometimes discourage as much as encourage those attempting to imitate their success.’
This makes a lot of sense to me. To be much help, a role model has to be someone you can identify with, a person who you could imagine aspiring to be, not someone who you envisage as having been born into some advantage you lack, or having had the good – but improbable – fortune of being sponsored by a CEO from an early stage in their career. Aiming high is one thing, but for most of us there is no point trying to get from the bottom to the top in one fell swoop. Furthermore, if you are a minority ethnic, these women named are unlikely to look plausible characters to model yourself upon for the very obvious reason of the colour of their skin and all the concomitant complications that intersectionality may bring.
I was embarrassed once to participate in a well-intentioned evening consisting of a panel of women from many spheres, all of whom would have been seen as successful, and then to be told by a young attendee it was just dispiriting because how could she hope to become like one of us? That had not at all been the aim of the evening but I couldn’t help wondering how many of those listening to the panel discussion would have been similarly discouraged. For them, we clearly weren’t role models. We were the sorts of people they couldn’t imagine turning into, and so we were simply a turn off of the kind the Financial Times article identifies.
The solution to this, according to Brenda Trenowden, chair of the 30% Club is that more senior women need to be encouraged “to talk authentically and frankly, warts and all” about their rise to top positions. But I’m not sure that’s enough. I can’t remember enough about the specific panel I mention above to be sure I talked about the challenges along the way to becoming a professor but, as on this blog, I usually do. I think it only does the audience a disservice if, as I have heard other women occasionally do, they imply they have never had any setbacks. No one gets to the top (unless, perhaps, by literal family nepotism) without struggling at some time or the other. No one achieves success without occasionally falling flat on their face, feeling out of their depth, or royally screwing up. I just don’t believe the world works like that.
Metaphorical warts matter because the young will be only too familiar with their own flaws and, if someone is to be a role model, then they must look sufficiently similar. This might be in the colour of their skin, their gender or their background, but it must also include some sort of human frailty. If I tried to pretend – as I definitely don’t – that I had always known exactly what I wanted to do and how I was going to get there, how would that help a fresh graduate who knew perfectly well they didn’t have a clue? Here on my blog, and in my talks to early career researchers – and indeed to school children too – I freely admit to many glitches, hiccoughs not to mention failures along my path.
To some extent it is easier for me to do this now I am senior; I have less to lose. For a mid-career scientist (probably also for a mid-career worker in any sector) that may be a much harder thing to do. Both because they are still struggling with their own confidence and aspirations, but also because they may fear that someone listening might subsequently stick the knife in during a promotion decision. However, in general I believe that role models to be useful should actually be not that far ahead of the person listening/watching.
I believe we are muddling up two different concepts in the term ‘role model’. There is the person providing the existence proof that someone like them can progress up the ladder and that someone needs to be only a few rungs higher up and so still an ‘imaginable’ self. And then there is a second category of person, the Sheryl Sandberg’s of this world, who can be ‘inspirational’ without being seen as necessarily similar. They indicate that for some people there is a way to the top. It doesn’t mean that it has to be someone like them, but those dizzy heights are attainable in the abstract. For me, role model should be applied to the former group, since they are the people occupying a role the listener can relate to, someone who could indeed act as a model for the future. The latter group are more about dreams, perhaps, than reality. I still find it startling that people place me in the latter category, and I say this in all humility. But that makes it all the more important for me to speak up about my own flaws so that I can still seem human rather than some fantasy superwoman. Since I lack the power to fly or to climb buildings with my bare hands and feet, I am better off being honest.
We certainly need more women prepared to speak up, not just about the moral imperative of equality, not just about their science, but about what advice helped them on their way, even if it is just about getting through their PhD or first postdoc. Everyone can profit from the clear-sightedness of someone just that bit ahead of them in the game. Everyone should be able to believe that the obstacles they currently face, be it settling down to writing that PhD or dealing with an aggressive fellow worker, do actually have a solution and that other people’s experience can (but may not) be helpful.
Role models do not have to be superwomen; they merely have to be people who’ve cracked your current stumbling block and found a way forward. Additionally, people need to recognize that all the successful people have similarly stumbled, perhaps even staggered backwards; that they will have embarrassing red-face moments to recount over a glass of wine and plenty of rejections to list on their CVs if they choose to do so. Warts can take many forms from impostor syndrome to the knowledge that their PhD thesis was riddled with errors.
In my College speeches I frequently quote our Founder Sir Winston Churchill, who tends to have an apt bon mot for every occasion. This one seems apposite here: ‘even [man’s] greatest neglects or failures may bring him good’. Role models, fantasy super(wo)men and those starting out should all bear that in mind.