What do we need from female role models?

Women still face a seemingly unsurmountable backlog in business. One important cause is scarcity in female role models. Having only people you don’t identify with as example, can have a lasting impact.

Like in my first job. A female in my business unit had just gotten into a management position no woman had held before. I looked up to her: I wanted to reach that too!

However, I soon learned everyone avoided her whenever possible. If we had to communicate with her, we would first check in with each other. Did her mood allow for a “hold your breath and give it an adventurous try”? With colleagues anxiously on stand-by for life-support if needed? Or was the air around her so charged you’d get electrocuted even walking up to her? In that case, we’d postpone discussing even urgent matters with her to a moment with lower volcanic activity.

She yelled at everyone. I was no exception. However, unlike my male colleagues, she also occasionally seemed to consider me a friend. She gave me well-meant advice and told me personal stuff. Such as, she liked to have children, but her boyfriend not so much. To be precise: he would not mind children, but she would need to take care of them. He didn’t want to be bothered. So she had to choose: a career, or children (apparently she didn’t consider a third obvious option: getting rid of the boyfriend).

Looking back, I realize she must have been under enormous pressure, as the first woman in such a demanding job. She was probably torn between ambitions, private life and society’s expectations. She must have felt so lonely, without peers in a similar position and a non-supporting partner. From her behavior it is now clear to me that she was insecure on several levels, and probably frightened of the consequences of her choices down the line.

But back then, I wasn’t able to see beyond the surface. She scared me. The only woman in the company that had achieved what I wanted to achieve, was someone I passionately NEVER wanted to become. Which raised the question: should I maybe stop wanting that job?

After some internal turmoil, I decided one scary female role model would not change my plans. Instead, I turned to men as role models. All my life I had competed with men anyway, so maybe they could provide inspiration? I observed them, talked to them, tried to find out what worked for them. I did learn many things. Above all, I learned that every single one of them had a wife that had taken a step back and took care of most things at home. And most men looked at me through those glasses: a nice and capable colleague, but above all, a future supporter of another man. A woman who would eventually get other priorities. So although I was doing a good job, my bosses felt no need to bother about my career planning.

I started to believe that to succeed in business, you have to put full focus on your career and have support at home. I had many internal debates on toning down my ambitions. But I was lucky. I then got a boss who advanced my career. He restored my energy to give ambition a try.

Once I achieved a management role, I was acutely aware of having become a role model. At first, I didn’t want to show my insecurities. I worked hard, also out of office hours. After conversations with younger colleagues, I realized it was now me who was scaring younger women into thinking this is only achievable for the very tough. I started to show my insecurities a bit more, as well as the struggles I felt doing the job and juggling priorities. However, that sometimes worried the younger women as well. It then dawned on me I didn’t have to be the perfect role model for all women out there. As long as I gave people an authentic picture, next to all other examples they saw. Letting them see you can achieve what you want walking different paths.

That’s why we need many more female role models. People are different. Young people (both women and men) need lots of examples. They shouldn’t have to draw implicit conclusions from seeing just one or two females in the job they want. Or only have men as role models. They should see different behaviors, and find out what works for them.

Think about it. For whom are you a role model? And what part do you want to play in the development journey of younger people?