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The Importance of Female Role Models

Liza Walter-Nelson Uncategorised

I was asked this question recently – what is the importance of female role models? And I had a good answer that looked to research such as;.


Me, a woman and a leader: Positive social identity and identity conflict: N. Karelaia and L. Guillén, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol 125:2, November 2014, Pages 204–21

•Do Female and Male Role Models Who Embody STEM Stereotypes Hinder Women’s Anticipated Success in STEM? S. Cheryan, J.O. Siy, M. Vichayapai, B. J. Drury, S. Kim. Social Psychological and Personality Science November 2011 vol. 2; 6 656-664

•Female leadership raises aspirations and educational attainment for girls: A policy experiment in India

•L Beaman, E Duflo, R Pande, P Topalova – science, 2012 – sciencemag.org

•Meta-analysis of the impact of positive psychological capital on employee attitudes, behaviors, and performance

•J.B. Avey, R.J. Reichard, F. Luthans, KH Mhatre; Human Resources Development Quarterly, 2011

• Positive global leadership; C. M. Youssef, F. Luthans. Journal of World Business, Volume 47, Issue 4, October 2012, Pages 539–547
•Living the future: a strengths-based example of restructure and culture at Boehringer Ingelheim. N. Garcea , R. Harrison, A. Linley, (2014), Strategic HR Review, Vol. 13: 3, pp.111 – 117

An answer that included social learning theory, (Albert Bandura, 1977 & 1997 – we learn through observation and what happens to others before copying their actions etc.). I had a good response such as women needing to identify with other women, to have leadership defined in a context in which they are not bent to a masculine stereotype of leadership. Everyone will construct their identities for themselves, coming to their authentic self, through a variety of inputs and reflection, and understanding of their own strengths. Good female role models in the workplace can help other female leaders by reducing the incongruity they may feel when observing stereotypical leadership styles and approaches and support them to break through the barriers to career progression; both real and perceived. And yesterday, I was at a very insightful presentation by Dr Helen Turnbull on Unconscious bias and gender differences, including our own internal messages and beliefs about ourselves.

And then I started buying Christmas presents for my children (one boy and one girl). We asked at nursery what our daughter liked to play with so we could really get her something she would love, as well as some obligatory Disney merchandise (which is in no way for me, really!) and they told us that she really liked playing with the role play toys; kitchen, house that kind of thing, which our son did too at her age.

But my husband and I had a bit of a thing about this; we hadn’t bought our son a kitchen to play with when he was her age, yet he liked playing with the role play toys, why then were we thinking of buying her one? Are we overthinking this? Should we just buy them what they like to play with (which at home, would mean buying her Lego and star wars toys actually)? If we buy her a kitchen are we helping set a stereotype (should we have got our boy one after all)? All the theories in the world don’t seem to be helping me now!

Then I thought about how I had really answered the question above, and what I had planned for a session I might run on the subject, and the simple truth is, I wouldn’t have focussed on gender at all.

I designed a session that focussed on strengths. I took gender out of my session altogether by creating anonymous role model cards/descriptions and asked participants to talk about the strengths they saw, felt and heard within the descriptions – in reality, the descriptions of role models contained males and females, introvert and extrovert leaders. They display a blend of strengths that might be considered masculine and feminine without particular gender assignment; I would like to teach my daughter (and my son) that they can achieve what they want to achieve through perseverance, through open mindedness (particularly through having a growth mindset) and by plying to their strengths – being authentic to themselves. And as she grows older, I will ask my daughter questions such as “why don’t you think that applies to you?”, “what do you think will make it harder for you and how can you put in place to overcome that?” so that she really questions what she want and why, and how she is going to achieve it.

But for now, we have bought her a kitchen toy – we saw her playing at nursery and she was delighted to make tea for us (probably because she knows how much I love a cup of tea!) – and for the future we will support her (and our son) on becoming the best they can be.