Haven’t you heard? We’re all role models

Why is it that every time I attend a conference, open a business journal, read a newspaper or blog about women in the workplace the case studies and key notes are always executive, six figure salary females who have managed to blend family life and career into their unique recipe for success? Where are the case studies of staffers, the ordinary women who make up the majority of today’s female workforce? Why am I constantly being sold role models who do not align with my work, family or financial life? Where does the ordinary woman feature in all of this?

Not surprisingly Project 2840 evidenced that 80% of females aged 28–40 find the top women in business are portrayed as superwomen in the media.

Surely by now we accept we are not all the same yet are we are persistently presented with the same type of person when we read about gender diversity and quietly I suspect these individuals are exhausted being ‘the face’ for their organisations and repeatedly wheeled out and called upon as the ideal specimen for us all to aim for.

Project 28–40 also found that the lifestyle of senior women is perceived as being unattractive, involving high stress and long hours with many senior women themselves agreeing with this. And it’s not just women with children, many single women are also thinking long and hard about whether they want a senior position and the lifestyle that goes with it, yet we continue to present executive women as the apex of female role models in business.

We know each and every one of us is different, male and female so it makes perfect sense that that we all seek different role models.

Yes, executive high achievers will have qualities that appeal to some people but certainly not all of us and I’m not entirely convinced that we appreciate that yet. Doesn’t it make sense that the traits and behaviours of our role models cannot be neatly wrapped up in one type of female, namely the boardroom mum. We all consciously or unconsciously choose who influences us and whether we are aware of it or not it’s usually a blend of traits or behaviours that we admire in all sorts of people at different stages in their lives and as our working experiences and family lives change so do those who influence and inspire us.

To be honest, the authentic role model most likely doesn’t actually exist; they are a virtual person, a rolling blend of styles, characteristics and qualities we aspire to have which may help explain why we find it so hard to identify individuals in our organisations and industry. It’s a rare person who can encapsulate everything we aspire to be in life.

When asked how can we encourage more women to be effective role models for the next generation? Females aged 28–40 responded with these top 3 answers: Increase mentoring; Challenge existing societal and work culture stereotypes; and voice honest experiences of work life balance.

Look everywhere, not just up

Regardless of gender, we already know that not everyone can get into the boardroom, there literally isn’t enough room but we will all be part of the pipeline for our entire working lives whether we realise it or not. Every single person, male and female, ambitious or not, is critically important to the health of this pipeline and as our lives change our function in the pipeline changes along with it. As key contributor’s it’s vital that we can recognise and identify role model qualities every step of the way to feel supported, motivated and inspired.

For me an early quality I wanted to bank was the infectious enthusiasm of my science teacher who loved their job or my boss in a pre-IPO tech company who always wanted to push the limits of possibility, technically a very talented person but it was their communication and leadership style that appealed most to me. In truth to this day I cannot remember their technical suggestions but I do recall the manner in which they were presented and the impact on the team around them.

People skills will always trump technical skills regardless of gender

Not all role models are likeable, many in fact have traits I just don’t admire but they do have other qualities that I would like to develop and emulate in myself. As humans we are instinctively programmed to seek out and apply the best of what we see in others so the truth is we are all role models for someone around us but we may never know it at the time. So with this in mind is it possible to broaden our search away from the boardroom and give executive mums a break from being the face of diversity (a role often compelled upon them) and let the staff inside the pipeline who are equally as compelling and entertaining take centre stage for a while?

This article was first published 12th September 2014 by PwC


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