The term ‘role model’
Being seen as a ‘role model’ is not a universally appealing prospect. For some it suggests an expectation of perfection, the risk of being put on a precarious pedestal or the possibility of being seen as arrogant. This may explain the reticence expressed by a number of the participants when asked why others might view them as successful. In contrast, they were relaxed and eloquent when invited to talk about the women they saw as admirable or inspiring. As a result, we decided to blend these responses together, so that we could paint a more comprehensive picture of what it means to be a successful female role model.
The inevitability of being seen as a role model
“Being a woman means I am a role model - like it or not.”
If there are fewer of you in the workplace, it is an uncomfortable fact that you will be more conspicuous. For women, this heightened visibility tends to increase with seniority, as their numbers diminish. It is therefore somewhat inevitable that people will be watching and making value judgements about how a woman does her job, like it or not. A younger colleague, for example, is likely to be observing her example to pick up clues about how things work and what it takes to get on.
It is also important to note that someone need not be senior to be a role model – in fact it is imperative that role models exist at all levels of an organisation to positively affect its culture. An operational manager, or group leader, is likely to have greater day-to-day impact on those around them than the most senior people in the institution.
To an extent we are all role models, irrespective of intent, on the basis that we exercise influence over others through our behaviour. The women involved in this book are role-modelling types of success just by who they are and how they approach their working lives. Becoming aware of, and accepting, this reality presents an opportunity to become more intentional with the effect we have on others. In essence, the choice is not about whether someone wishes to be a role model or not, but rather about what kind of role model they want to be.
And of course it’s not just women who influence other women. Most people tend to work with composite role models, learning from a wide range of individuals that they see as admirable in some way. Although the focus of this chapter is on the qualities of successful female role models, it is important to note that many of the women involved in the book described men as having been some of their most formative and positive influences. A couple of participants were also very clear that they didn’t feel that the gender of their role models was relevant to them in any way.
“I have to say that most of my role models have been men!”
The qualities associated with successful female role models
The summary of role-model qualities with illustrative quotes seen on the following page is based on the attributes that the women in the book valued most either in themselves or in the people that they admired. It therefore signposts those qualities likely to be appreciated by colleagues, whilst also signalling the behaviours most clearly linked with the definition of success that is emerging from this book. These qualities, presented in no particular order of priority, are not however intended to form a shopping list, which requires every item to be ticked off before a person can be judged to be successful. Instead, it can help individuals and organisations think about the qualities they value most highly and how they can create the conditions to make them commonplace. Inevitably – and reassuringly – there are also significant overlaps with trends and themes you have already seen emerging in previous chapters.
Demonstrates self-awareness with insight into their own values, sticks to principles, consistent, kind and courteous.
Track record of honesty and fair treatment of others.
Does the right thing even when it’s not popular.
“ I certainly don’t play power games, but this hasn’t prevented me from doing well in my field.”
“ Be authentic, summon support, find like-minded others, do what you believe in, trust your instincts, take up offers of intellectual and other support/friendship, never compromise your basic values or identity.”
Good connectors and collaborators, able to engage others, often using humour and enthusiasm.
Generous in supporting and developing people.
Prioritises relationships and makes time for them.
“ My students like me because no question is too stupid to ask, and I support the notion that there is no shame in getting things wrong.”
“ She always cared about more than just the professional me.”
Authority and leadership
Authoritative and responsible, with capacity to inspire respect from colleagues – both male and female.
Politically astute, calm under pressure and willing to make tough calls when needed.
“ (I am) ready to listen to various sides of the argument, but also to make firm decisions. I try not to ‘pull rank’ but to take responsibility where it falls to me.”
Exercises influence and demonstrates commitment to gender equality.
“ I am particularly proud of being a role model not only for women, but also for mature students.”
“ I still find myself in places where one can be forgiven for thinking women have yet to be invented. Pointing this out – with grace and humour, but more importantly attempting to remedy it – is just one small example of the many interventions that senior academic women can make in working towards a 50:50 society.”
Accessible and fallible
A realistic and accessible role model for others, ‘ordinarily extraordinary’.
“ Often it is women of a similar age to myself who inspire me, and help me to feel that the inevitable corners I cut on both fronts (work and home) are understandable and justified.”
High-quality work and attitude
“ I find her success in world-class science is an inspiration. The fact that she has done this without acquiring masculine traits and a ruthless attitude is even more impressive.”
“ I do not simply accept the status quo: I often try to improve systems, restructure the department etc.”
“ I admire them for being professional about their work, whether they are researchers, computer officers, academic staff or administrators and technicians. I admire them for their commitment
Confident and authentic
“ Women who have been able to be themselves (apparently) and keep their end up politely.”
“ She listens intently, and has such an ability to assimilate and process information, and then to make up her own mind and stick to it.”
“ Her bravery in tackling such extreme and offensive sexism on behalf of all women in the public eye.”
“ Knowing my brief, listening carefully, seeking collaboration, harvesting support and having resilience and courage to do the difficult things when necessary.”
The ‘add-on principle’
In reviewing the qualities captured in the table above, and considering what it means in practice to be a role model, we were struck by what we have called the ‘add-on principle’. This describes the cumulative expectation and repeated use of ‘and’ that came with seeing someone as admirable. For example, some women were described as academically or professionally brilliant and full of integrity and skilled at making time for their family. This suggests a richness and roundedness in what women valued and saw as successful. They seemed less inclined to view someone as impressive if that person displayed just one of these qualities in abundance, but failed to exhibit any others. Given that we only spoke to women for this book, we are not in a position to say whether men would require a similar breadth of attributes, or whether they would be more comfortable viewing someone as successful based on the strong demonstration of a single aspect. It would be interesting to see if other research could shed a light on any differences between the genders in this regard.
The darker side to the ‘add-on principle’ is that it suggests someone needs to attain an extraordinarily high standard before being viewed as truly successful. It was also noticeable that participants seemed to be more exacting in applying these criteria to themselves than to others. This streak of perfectionism holds the potential to drive high performance, but when overplayed also risks unhelpful distortions in self-assessment.
The value of role models
There is something fundamentally generous about a person accepting that they are a role model. In effect, they are seeing that their influence can extend beyond themselves and their own careers to impact on others. But role modelling is as much an exercise in organisational commitment as it is a matter of individual effort. If role models have the potential to signpost the way to a more inclusive future culture, whilst also having a positive impact on the current one, then how can organisations take best advantage of this? They need to think hard about who they typically see as role models, why and whether they are sending the right messages by the way they hold up particular people as success stories. Role models who are given profile and visibility are great indicators of who an organisation values most – and this can provide a kind of institutional audit of the range and diversity of individuals who are viewed as successful. If this range is too narrow, focuses just on the most senior, concentrates on one group over another or indeed lacks sufficient women, then there is room for progress and an insight into where that needs to take place. Ultimately, role models of the kind found in this book can inspire, embody and accelerate change – so any organisation would do well to find them and give them a platform.