I have been talking about leadership and role models to a number of business and student groups recently. Who inspires us today to choose our careers, develop our skills, aspire to the board, or set up a business on our own?
What I have found is, if you ask a group of students, invariably the majority of men in the group suggest Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg as their inspiration in business. Ask a business group and we get a fair number of people adding in Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Lord Sugar, Sir Philip Green, James Caan, Peter Jones and of course both groups are happy to add into the role model mix a smattering of politicians plus sports coaches, sports managers and of course sports men.
Women though have remarkably little to say about role models. If you ask them they tend to think, ponder, reflect, then shake their heads. A group of 20 women or female students can seldom come up with even one business or career role model (other than a few suggestions of celebrities who tend to work in the music, film or fashion industry). Women and girls seem to seriously lack role models.
In a Girlguiding survey, 55% of girls cited their mothers as their role models. That’s great for mothers and says a lot about their relationship with their daughters, however it is unlikely to inspire girls to reach for the stars or achieve what might initially feel like the unachievable.
Some might suggest that there are some great female role models in business. So why do girls and women not identify with them? I do wonder if many of the women who are successful in today’s environment are either what we might term alpha females… those females who, in order to succeed and be accepted in business, have adopted male communication and behavioural traits or they are those women who are waxed, manicured, polished and glossed to artificial perfection, thereby rendering them inaccessible to the average woman. But how many really want to give up their female communication styles and behavioural traits or dress like mannequins just to be really successful in today’s world? The sacrifice and effort required is seen by many to be just too great.
We also have the problem of many successful women achieving their success in part due to either having no children or having just one child. Studies have shown the difference in family size between men and women sitting on corporate boards is quite staggering. I am guessing, but I would suspect that a woman who intended to raise children during her career is unlikely to view a female board member or woman business owner who has chosen not to have children (or that is the perception of why she does not have any children), as their role model.
If we want more female role models in our society to encourage the younger generations to aspire to the top positions in organisations, or to become successful entrepreneurs, we need to find a way to allow women to progress to senior levels without needing to sacrifice their femininity, their natural communication and behavioural style or their desire to have a family. If we can achieve that, then we can start to develop a fantastic collection of female role models to inspire the younger generations coming through.
If you have sons or daughters just starting out in their careers, I would be very interested to hear about how many of them have role models and who those role models are.
Girlguiding asks about lack of role models (May 2012)