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Lead with success > On Reflection > Female Role Models (Why We Need More Women At The Top)

Female Role Models (Why We Need More Women At The Top)

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

In an interview with a journalist, she wanted to know why I thought it mattered that we have women in senior positions in business and other fields. I didn’t lead off with the business case or even the equity argument (which at Professionelle we tend to take as given) but instead with the value for young women of having relevant role models in society at large. Perhaps this seems one of the softer benefits – there certainly isn’t much research on it except that working women continue to cite it as an obstacle to their career progression. However, soft or not, I think it is important.

A Short List

I’d been talking to my 16 year old daughter, you see – rest assured she has given me permission to share what follows – and it was mildly alarming. I’d asked her who her role models were. Gratifyingly, she immediately said I was, but then the list dried up.

I reframed the question in different ways to prompt her thinking, and these were the role models she ended up identifying:

  • The suffragettes: Kate Sheppard in New Zealand and Emmeline Pankhurst in England. Why? Because they didn’t accept the status quo on voting, in which women were set on a legal par with idiots, criminals and children. They persevered until they reached their goals.
  • “Kick-arse” heroines in books and films: young women who take action, are confident, and don’t accept the limitations others impose on them. Favourites include the female lead in the film “Mulan” and the heroines in Tamara Pierce’s novels.

A possible final inclusion on the list was Lady Gaga because she has achieved success and seems, from the outside, to have done it on her own terms and in her own way.

However you cut it, it’s not a long list.

Expanding the Art of the Possible

Through most of my daughter’s primary school days, Helen Clark was the Prime Minister in New Zealand. And for a while my daughter wanted to be, you guessed it, Prime Minister. Now it could be that she would have gravitated to this option anyway (the appeal of the trappings of power etc!), but I do think it was that much easier to see herself in the role because a woman was doing it. It put the possibility into her consideration set.

And that’s a hugely positive thing that senior females do: they expand the art of the possible for young women coming into organisations. Without these living examples, being at ‘the top’ would require a big leap of imagination by junior women, a leap that their male colleagues very rarely have to make.

Not Her Way

From my own experience, however, I have to say that while senior women can show younger ones what they can aspire to, that doesn’t necessarily make them perfect role models. I’m not talking about Queen Bees here (i.e. senior women who have got to the top the hard way and make it just as tough for the younger women coming up behind them), simply about the fact that the way another woman has made it to the top isn’t necessarily the right one for those still coming up through the ranks.

Un-role Models

For several years I was one of the most senior women in the organisation I was employed in. I remember being told by a very senior man that if women consultants wanted role models they should look at how a partner in the European system had successfully handled motherhood and her career. This particular woman had chosen to return to work 3 days after the birth of her third child. Indeed, the stories that circulated back then about women partners who became mothers all seemed to be in this macho mould: “X went into labour over the photocopier” and “Y held a conference call from the recovery room.” For me these were un-role models that didn’t help me find a path forward (though, again, if these choices worked for the women and their families, fine).

This is yet another reason we need to keep working towards a critical mass of senior women. More women at the top gives the junior ones a better chance of finding among the varied paths on offer the elements that will work for them.

Best Models

Perhaps the best role models then, are those who give us both the destination and the map:

  • The destination being the aspirational position they have reached, with its power to inspire us.
  • The map as the pathway to the top that aligns enough with our values for it to feel authentic and relevant for us.

We know from Professionelle workshops as well as international research that a key challenge for women as they rise in organisations is “keeping their shape” i.e. resisting the very real pressure to take on male attributes, approaches and attitudes in order to maintain career success.  What resonates and inspires aspiring women are these authentic experienced and successful women who, each in their own way, are role models who show us that it is possible to achieve significant success and yet ‘keep their shape’.

Last Word

I’ll give the last word to my daughter – something she likes to have… After we’d discussed her role models, she came back to me and said, ‘You know, Mum, about my role models. It would be nice if a lot more of them were alive…and real!

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