Why not just any old role model will do: What early career men and women need

Make sure your vision of a leader looks like you.

This is how Tara Sophia Mohr wrapped up her Negotiation Tips: Take it from Women over at the Huffington Post earlier this week.

Mohr’s advice reflects one of the traditional arguments for increasing the numbers of women where they are underrepresented, namely the need for role models. For early career colleagues, envisaging advancement depends on seeing people like themselves in the positions they want to pursue.

What does a leader who “looks like you” look like? What kinds of role models do our colleagues benefit from finding?

A few days ago, at the CES2012 Women in Tech panel discussion, senior women from Google, Flickr, Cisco and CNET, discussed role models. Jay Greene’s report offers an intuitively plausible example of how social barriers can affect men and women differently, underscoring the importance of visible women.

A challenge for many young women in the [technology] industry is that it can be hard for them to reach out to older male colleagues to ask advice. There are societal constraints in a 25-year-old woman sending a note to a 45-year-old man wanting to talk about career options after work.

Stories and intuitions help us identify where research is needed. They also help us communicate to a broader public. So it’s fitting that this kind of speculation is part of a panel discussion.

Ultimately, though, we need research. It’s a fact that there are few women role models in senior positions in many professions. But it’s a conclusion that we should work to repair this gender imbalance.

Conclusions must be based on the sound argumentation that can be built only on knowledge; conclusions should be based on research.

Is there research on the importance of role models? If so, what does it tell us?

The Research Digest reports on Penelope Lockwood’s article Someone like me can be successful: Do college Students need same-gender role models? from the Psychology of Women Quarterly.

Female students, Lockwood demonstrates, are more influenced by the gender of role models than are male students. That is, female students report greater motivation after reading about an outstanding woman than they do when they read about an outstanding man. Male students are also inspired by reading about successful people, but their level of inspiration is not affected by the gender of the person in the story.

Lockwood asked students to tell her about career role models. Female students tended to identify women while male students tended to identify men.

A difference was revealed when male and female students were asked if gender was a factor in their choice of role model. For the men, it was not. But many of the women identified a female role model because she had surmounted gender-specific challenges they anticipate facing themselves.

A supplemental perspective emerges in Do female and male role models who embody STEM stereotypes hinder women’s anticipated success in STEM? at Social, Psychological and Personality Science. Sapna Cheryan and her colleagues demonstrate that we can raise the expectations of women entering STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) through exposure to role models.

Women tend to underestimate their potential for success in STEM. But those expectations can be modified. The conclusion of this study, however, was that gender does not matter as much as nerdiness.

Incoming women were not inspired by potential role models who were perceived as typical STEM folks. But incoming women did gain confidence from role models who contravened the stereotypes.

Women see themselves as outsiders in these subjects and they are influenced when they see that other outsiders can make it. People who are good in STEM areas are often portrayed in the popular media stereotypically, leading Cheryan&co to warn that, ”the proliferation of such stereotypical images in society may be preventing the next generation of potential female scientists from believing they can achieve success in STEM.”

In a study specifically looking at the mentoring impact of women in leadership positions, similar results emerge. Crystal L. Hoyt and Stefanie Simon published Female leaders: Injurious or inspiring role models for women? in Psychology of Women Quarterly. They demonstrate that higher and more elite women in organizations are not the best role models for early career women; women in middle management are more inspiring. The women who are higher are too far down the path; they have achieved things that seem unachievable.

When performing in a stereotype-threatening domain, ingroup role models whose success does not seem attainable can have a less positive impact compared to ingroup role models whose success does seem attainable.

Not just anyone is a good mentor. When members of underrepresented groups start their careers, they see themselves as outsiders and therefore need role models who still look like outsiders. Early career women do need female role models, but it’s more nuanced than that. They need female role models they can identify with.

We must keep this research in mind as we assess the diversity of our organizations and develop strategies for its further enhancement.

What can you do to provide your young colleagues with mentors who look like them?

Related post: There are only 3 reasons women don’t make it to the top

Photo courtesy of: Fouquier

About Curt Rice

My interest in leadership development at universities affects most of what I do, whether it’s working on gender balance issues, developing policies about Open Access, promoting research-based education or just about anything else. I'm a professor at the University of Tromsø, where I've spent the last decade serving first as the head of a Center of Excellence (2002-2008) and then as the Vice President for Research & Development (prorektor for forskning og utvikling) (2009-2013). I'm currently a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

Comments

  1. You bring up some good points about mentoring and role models.

    People early in their careers look for role models who embody their goals. I used to be an ambitious young graduate searching for a role model who was successful without sacrificing other life and family goals. I was unable to find that in science. And I’m not sure that it has improved much at all over the last decade.

    Meanwhile, women in business are finding an increasing number of role models and successful mentors who either look like them, or embody what they want to be. For example, one of the talented entrepreneurs I work with finds inspiration from the high-powered women she leans on for advice. This entrepreneur enjoys mentoring, promoting and supporting other women. In her words, “I am meeting dynamic women who are doing it all and making it look good. I am feeling empowered because of my mind and my work…I’ve never been happier and more fulfilled in my life.” She is highly successful and has not sacrificed having a family to be successful. She would have been the perfect role model for me in my younger days.

    I think if we are to retain more women in STEM fields, we need to overcome the proliferation of stereotypical images in society by finding and promoting, “dynamic women who are doing it all and making it look good.”

    This means finding a diverse range of intelligent, successful role models who embody what young graduates are looking for in terms of life goals; whether single, married, in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships, hip or anti-hipster, high-fashion and materialistic or subversive and anti-consumerist, with or without children. I think the key is to make visible the representation of diverse life-values in highly intelligent and successful women. Of course, the first step is to make sure there is a decent representation of successful women to begin with.

    It’s definitely a challenge, and a change from tradition. But our world is over-mediated and changing. Like it or not, science– like business– will have to change its work-environment and its image to keep pace, attract and retain highly educated women (and men).

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