As a sound-bite this phrase certainly has impact and is often used to explain why women are not succeeding as well as they might in the workplace, the inference being that there are insufficient women in leadership positions who other females wish to emulate.
What are women’s expectations of role models, do all women want and/or need role models and should role models and mentors be “what others can see”?
Expectations of role models
Research undertaken by Dr Ruth Sealy on the impact of role models in female progression suggested that women tend to seek out role models who “tick all the boxes” and women often say that there aren’t “suitable” female role models within their organisations.
Men, on the other hand, put together a “composite” role model that encapsulates the best characteristics, behaviours, traits of a variety of people. They try to be the best by adopting and emulating the best regardless of whether s/he looks like them or not.
Do all women want/need role models?
Yes and no. There is a wide body of research which indicates that women need role models in order to succeed, yet I once heard Janet Street Porter speak at a female entrepreneurs’ network and when asked “Who are your role models?” she replied, quick as a flash, “Why would I want a role model? Why would I want to be like anyone else? I want to stand out from the crowd. I want to do things differently,” she continued to cheering and clapping from the group.
You could argue that she was the ideal “poster girl” for these female entrepreneurs. They wanted to do it their way. She was, therefore, their perfect role model – someone who was prepared to be different.
Do role models need to “be what you can see”?
Condoleeza Rice, the former US Secretary of State has said:
Search for those you can look up to and people who take an interest in your career.
But here’s an important warning: you don’t have to have mentors who look like you.
Had I been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist mentor, I would still be waiting. Most of my mentors have been old white men, because they were the ones who dominated my field.
Maybe it’s time to think less about seeking one person, and more about seeking out a range of people whose qualities, values and behaviours you admire because sometimes you have to be what you can’t see.