Warts and All

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.


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5 Responses to Warts and All

  1. Maria says:

    I fully identify with the woman who raised her hand to tell you that she could not identify with very senior women. Instead of simply walking on stage, most senior women could as well land in a space ship, announce that they are from Mars and ask the audience to take them to their leader.
    (While I acknowledge that I might feel twice as alienated as most others, given that 1. I come from a farm and 2. I am not British, I still think that) most senior scientists have no clue anymore what it is like to be, e.g. a PhD student, which is probably also because circumstances have changed substantially during the last decades. Plus, some senior scientists adhere to strict hierarchies and sometimes even seem to expect worshipping from students. There is a bit of a person cult (you would ask them for advice on how to get where they are, instead of talking science which, in an ideal world, is why they are where they are). As a consequence, I stopped listening to advice from people who are in senior positions, if they are not the type of scientist I would want to be (e.g., a senior scientist once told me to simply start bullshitting if I don’t know something – perhaps this is beneficial for one’s career, but it is bad for science), independent of whether they hold the permanent position I would like to hold in the future. When people are in the same field, I never know whether they give me advice with their own agenda in mind rather than my well-being.

    I think the problem is that science thinks of anyone who is not already very senior as a mentor. I get great and honest advice from postdocs.

    Some very senior women say things like “Women- don’t whine! Stop complaining! If you only work hard enough, you will make it.” – completely ignorant of the fact that they obviously had influential people to facilitate them, which is not exactly what everyone’s got. Some are fooled into believing that their achievements are entirely the result of their own work, which is almost certainly wrong.

    I don’t know whether I am particularly stupid, but sometimes senior women tell about how clueless they were and stupid comments they made (e.g., during interviews, or to senior people), which seem to be stupid enough for them to remember them after decades, but do not even come close to my everyday idiocy (which is too frequent for me to remember it even after a week).

    • NC says:

      You don’t listen to advice from senior scientists, yet you’re reading this blog? 😉

      I’ve also had the “start bullshitting” advice. I even tried it – it went as terribly as I expected. Not even always good for your career.

      Also… those senior female scientists probably did silly things all the time that they’ve forgotten about too. But I dunno, I’m not one of them (yet?).

  2. S says:

    This is a great post and I would link my pseudo-anonymous blog, but I’m not ready for a big audience as yet.

    When I got tenure I went around and thanked all the secretarial staff and others in administrative positions (not just my supervisors) and also janitors. They were the people I leaned on and I know I used up a lot of their time and resources. Likewise for my kids school staff. Public elementary schools in the US are not exactly structured to give anyone any breaks and do things differently. But I asked for and got many accommodations. I couldn’t have managed three kids and their frequent colds and what not without understanding from the schools.

    That said, it is true (I’ve been told too many times) that I’m energetic – translation I can put in long hours day after day and constantly hop from work to kids to this to that. The level of multitasking I’ve had to do is considerable compared to most women and exceptional compared to men. It’s not just physical multitasking, but mental. I’ve had to solve difficult family problems and jump right into solving a knotty math problem then onto a teaching issue etc. etc.. each one demanding my full attention. That’s hard.

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