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The power of a female role model

When you think about a strong, working woman, who springs to mind first? Maybe it’s former First Lady Michelle Obama or human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Or it could be someone closer to home, a mentor from university, or a long-time boss. Having a role model as a woman can have a profound impact on your ability to excel in a career, allowing you to overcome stereotypes and help foster a sense of belonging, according to research.

Seeing is believing as women tackle male-dominated professions, shoot their shots in the C-suite and develop life-saving inventions like bullet-proof vests and windscreen wipers. Visibility breeds confidence. And confidence? Confidence breeds action, like applying for traditionally male-dominated jobs or founding a company.

This visibility is even more important for young women at the start of their careers. According to McKinsey’s 2022 Women in the Workplace Report, compiled from 40 000 employee surveys, “young women care deeply about the opportunity to advance – more than two-thirds of women under 30 want to be senior leaders”. And this desire is fundamental to the future of organisations with research showing that “company profits and share performance can be close to 50% higher when women are well-represented at the top.”

Female role models can help these women become senior leaders. And we want more women in senior leadership positions. This same McKinsey report indicated that women are more likely to embrace “employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity” which will benefit organisations (and the world) at large.

For women, role models may matter even more than for men. According to Forbes, “role models have an amplified benefit for women due to the gender biases, institutional barriers, and negative stereotypes women have long had to contend with”. This is particularly noticeable in science, technology, engineering, maths, and computer science fields.

On the journey towards gender equality in the workplace, it’s also important to consider your female peers and not just female role models. Books and films have made the concept of sisterhood popular. But the strength of this concept goes beyond the page and television.

Co-author of the book Shared Sisterhood and college professor Tina Opie believes that sisterhood is fundamental to “dismantling systemic inequalities” in the workplace and beyond. This sisterhood philosophy is based on three principles – dig, bridge and collectively act – which unpacks how digging deep to understand yourself and your historical past can lead to bridges that provide authentic connections between others. These connections eventually build a “latticework” that can aid in advancing female equality (and other forms of equality) by stimulating group action, often at an institutional level.

On top of understanding how valuable a female role model can be is understanding how valuable you are in the first instance. ‘Believe in yourself’ is a cliché that’s been plastered on motivational posters for what feels like decades but – maybe annoyingly – it is a statement you can’t ignore.

Author of The New Playbook for Women at Work Randi Braun puts it plainly: “Mentors and sponsors are critically important, but what is their value if we don’t first believe in ourselves? Showing up for others as a servant leader can be transformational [for example], but what about when we serve others at the expense of ourselves?” Layering self-belief with a strong, female role model can be the start of transformational progress in the world of work for women of all shapes and sizes. Getting to the point of self-belief is about saying ‘yes’ to opportunities and being brave even when ‘imposter syndrome’ strikes.

Deb Liu, CEO of the genealogy company Ancestry, put this perfectly when she spoke to Harvard Business Review: “The bigger thing about [imposter syndrome] is what do you do about it? Do you let it cow you? Do you let it put you inside of yourself? Or do you say, ‘You know what? I’m going to take that energy and I’m going to use it as fuel to get to where I want to go.’”

Self-belief isn’t about entirely removing doubt. It’s about knowing that you’re capable and trusting the process. By harnessing this thinking on top of leveraging the insight, experience, and support of a female role model, you have a sure-fire combination for success.


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