The importance of relatable role models
Updated: Jan 30, 2019
I've been thinking a lot about role models lately, and apparently I'm not alone - I've had conversations with multiple clients about the impact showcasing relatable role models can have on a business. I wrote a blog back in March (“Do we still need International Women’s Day?”) on this very topic. For me, one of the most powerful reasons why events like International Women's Day, IDAHOT day and Black History Month are so important is that they bring powerful role models to the forefront of everyone's minds, promoting and celebrating individuals who inspire others.
I attended an event on #IWD2018 where the brilliant Cindy Hoots, CIO of Unilever, talked about her career and experiences, demonstrating the kind of authenticity rarely seen in this sort of forum. This authenticity was the most impactful part of Cindy's speech - she was prepared to be "real" about the challenges of trying to juggle whilst she was speaking in front of an audience. This is not the norm, as alluded to in a recent article in The Times which referred to the "air-brushing" which so frequently happens when it comes to the portrayal of working parents, particularly women. This air-brushing means that whilst we might be prepared to share our day to day work-life disasters one-on-one with friends, we're much less likely to do so publicly, especially if we're being held up as role models. The pressure becomes too much, and reality is air-brushed to perfection, leaving us with only "super women" role models. I'm just not sure that showcasing only the super women is helpful. Whilst it gives us something to strive towards, providing inspiration and aspiration, it also sets unrealistic expectations, and the niggling feeling that if we can't make it work then we are “not trying hard enough… or not good enough… or not organised enough”. And even the most mentally robust of us are going to struggle with that feeling on top of everything else.
"I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career" Gloria Steinem
Part of the reason for this is that whilst the working world has moved on for women, our cultural expectations haven’t. So the expectations of women to be mothers, carers and “domestic goddesses” are all still there, but there are also expectations around excelling in their careers. Meanwhile expectations for men have remained fairly static – as Gloria Steinem said – “I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career”. And The Times article echoes this sentiment, citing Dr Barbara W Sarnecka who found that subjects in a study were much less judgemental of fathers who left their children briefly (for example in a car) while they did a task. Or as Kim Brooks puts it, “a father who is distracted by his interests and obligations in the adult world is being, well, a father; a mother who does the same is failing her children”.
When you put the idea of role models into this context, it becomes really important to see the reality. And I’m not just talking about working mothers stopping the “air-brushing”. We need more men talking about the juggling act of being parents and working, as James Sudakow does in his article about putting his family first. The article, whilst a great read, isn’t revolutionary in terms of its content – family life adds a different perspective and gives different ideas for ways of working. However, it’s the one of the first articles I’ve seen by a man sharing these kinds of ideas. And that shows – it’s received almost 2000 “likes” on LinkedIn since being posted through Thrive.
So let’s see more unexpected role models, more relatable role models, and more powerful role models being real and vulnerable. I witnessed the power of incredible and yet relatable role models when I designed the Women at Capgemini role model video series. The women profiled were all really impressive, and human as well, which is why it had such impact. And if you’re still unconvinced of the value of role models, here’s a little recap on my #IWD2018 reasons why role models are so important:
1. You can’t be what you can’t see — Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project which aims to show women as leaders through film, TV and culture, coined this phrase. We have to be able to show possibility to those under-represented in any fields… Essentially…
2. Everyone needs someone to look up to — two year old Parker Curry nearly broke the internet when the picture of her gazing at Michelle Obama’s portrait in the Smithsonian went viral earlier this year. It’s a beautiful visual representation of the inspiration provided by role models.
3. Visible role models within an organization mean that employees from that demographic feel more included. In Stonewall’s 2016 Employer Index report, stated that 92% of respondents who reported there are visible lesbian, gay, bi and trans role models in their workplace also felt their organisation was LGBT inclusive, compared to 52% for those who don’t see visible role models. We know that and when people feel more included, they are more productive, with Deloitte stating that inclusive teams outperform their peers by 80% — compelling data!
But more than all of these – human beings are social animals – we share stories to bring our experiences to life, and the relief of having that “It’s not just me!” moment is huge. And whether we choose to believe it or not, we are all role models for someone else, and we all have an opportunity to make a difference.
At A New Normal, we're in the business of supporting organisations with starting these kinds of conversations. So if you want to talk to us about how we can help you to showcase your incredible role models for sustainable culture change, please do get in touch - we'd love to hear from you.
Side-note - the start to my day today
In the spirit of "keeping it real", I'd like to share the planned and actual start to my day today...
The plan was to leap out of bed when my partner left early for his meeting, get my running gear on, give the kids breakfast, drop them off at child-care and go for a run, getting back in time to shower, change and get to my first meeting. So far, so super woman....
Instead, my smaller daughter (who got up six times in the night) decided to recharge her batteries by having a lie-in this morning. My running clothes went on as planned. Then came off, when it became very apparent that only a rip in the space/ time continuum was going to enable this plan to work. In fact, I ended up driving them the two minutes up the road to the child-minder, leaving the engine running and then throwing myself back in the car to get to my first meeting in time; feeling horrendously guilty that my older daughter had spent the first hour of the day lobbying to spend the day with me instead of going to our child-minder (who, by the way, she loves). Thank goodness for coffee...