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Raising aspirations with role models

We all need role models. Role models in the workplace raise our aspirations and help us strive for bigger career goals. These are the people who are ahead of us on the career ladder, paving the way and showing us what good looks like.

Ann Francke, CEO of The Chartered Management Institute puts it perfectly:

“Good role models inspire us, give us new ideas and show us that things can be different. I think there are two types. There are the so-called idols whose names are writ large across the night sky. Then we have the accessible ones, who can teach us how to do things and instil a belief that we too can achieve great things. We need both. We need to dream big but we also need people that we can reach out and touch.”

This is where it becomes problematic for women, when there is a shortage of female role models in the workplace in leadership roles and women find they have fewer role models to show them the way.

It starts early and doesn’t stop

Gender stereotyping plays a large role from an early age, influencing our views of jobs for boys versus jobs for girls. Society at large, and especially the media, plays an outsized role in shaping the minds and aspirations of young people. Women have often been written out of history and we’ve grown up celebrating men that have changed the world; we know all about Albert Einstein, but not physicist Lise Meitner who helped discover nuclear fission. As a result we’ve seen a stark shortage of girls choosing to study STEM subjects and go onto careers in STEM compared to boys. But even as we get older, role models still have an important place.

How we see ourselves through role models

Gender Pay Gap reporting since 2018 has highlighted the lack of senior women in nearly every sector in the UK. The single biggest contributor to the gender pay gap is motherhood; due to various reasons including inherent biases in the structure of the traditional workplace, women are much less likely and much less able to progress their careers whilst balancing caring responsibilities. For many women, a lack of female role models in the office can limit how they see their careers developing after they start a family.

As Emma James, solicitor, explains:

“When I was training I didn’t see any women who worked and had a family in my industry so when I started a family, I didn’t have the confidence or self-belief that I could make it work. That’s now changed for me and it’s important to see others doing it to know that you can, too.”

In fact, the importance of role models in your early career goes beyond what you see as a normal work-life balance with children. Research has shown that the more positive role models we have earlier on in life, the higher we will aim in our own careers. Simply by surrounding ourselves with other women who are high-achievers means we see what is possible. Therefore, when those role models are absent in our lives, we adjust our aspirations. Our dreams and goals become smaller. Whether we realise it or not, we start to limit our expectations of how far we can go.

A useful role for role models

Role models can act as guides for us, providing blueprints for how careers could work out. This person has forged the path ahead for us and drawn a map along the way so we know which route to follow. Ideally, we need women in our lives that we can identify with to see something of our future selves in.

Rebecca Lockwood, NLP Coach, explains:

“When I worked in corporate sales there were no female role models. In fact, I applied to go on BBC’s The Apprentice and I couldn’t answer when they asked who my role model was in business. I was honest and said it was my Mum.”

Building better workplaces

But female role models can have a more positive and wider impact than on just other women coming up after them. The Rockefeller Foundation summed it up well: “Having female leaders in positions of influence to serve as role models is not only critical to the career advancement of women, but stands to generate broader societal impacts on pay equity, changing workplace policies in ways that benefit both men and women, and attracting a more diverse workforce.”

Making it happen

If you’re interested in seeking out a role model or in ensuring that others can benefit from one in your workplace, then here are some suggestions:

  1. Set up or join women’s networks either internally or externally.

  2. Be a role model yourself. Be vocal and open about your career path and how you’re balancing work and life as you progress your career.

  3. Invite external speakers. Where there might be a lack of senior female figures in your workplace, consider inviting speakers from outside. However, be cautious in choice as successful people who seem to be too far removed from our own reality can actually have the opposite of the intended effect.

  4. Encourage visibility in your workplace. Look around your office and check to see if there is a balance in all internal and external communications. Without even realising we can internalise images and messages, and if all we see are predominantly men in suits, then that just reinforces negative stereotypes.

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