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The importance of role models for women in business

Maxine Benson MBE and co-founder of everywoman

The relative lack of opportunities for women to progress their careers in business, compared with their male counterparts, is not a new conversation. But despite global progress and open conversations, we still constantly hear of the challenges and hurdles for women in business in all industries. Arguably one of the biggest contributing factors is representation and ‘being what you can see’.

Since founding everywoman 23 years ago, we have learned to never underestimate the value and power of role models generally, and relatable, accessible role models specifically. Back in 1999 when we launched everywoman the term was not used in business, arguably because of the sheer lack of them! But there has been a positive shift and today the power of role models is widely acknowledged.

It is simple but incredibly powerful and inspiring to see leaders sharing their unique career story with younger women who can’t envisage how, or what it would take, for them to one day be like that successful woman in front of them. Role models help bridge gaps and open up the world of possibility when they share the good, bad and ugly of their career journey.  Yes, they get nervous, feel like an imposter, question their ability, they are just like us. We’ve witnessed Role Models inspire others to find their voice or take actions that accelerate conversations and drive real change in organisations and in turn society and the economy.

People often have multiple role models – parents, teachers, celebrities, colleagues – and they can be crucial to achieving your potential in all areas of life. Research has shown that early role models can be incredibly impactful in a person’s development and just as having a visionary teacher can influence your educational path, finding the right role model in your business life makes a difference to how you perform and progress within the workplace.

Research by The Glass Hammer and Accenture showed the strong correlation between role models and individual aspirations, with 83% of women with strong ambition saying they had a role model. It is widely accepted that having role models can instil a powerful drive to achieve more and to aim higher.

HOW MENTORS AND ROLE MODELS ARE DIFFERENT
A mentor is someone you have a two-way relationship with and a recognised structure of workplace interaction; they support, nurture, and assist you on your career path. A role model, however, is an individual with whom you may have some contact. Though, your relationship is likely to be slightly removed if you have one at all. A role model could be anyone from your CEO, someone you have little real-time interaction with, or someone you’ve never met, such as a high-profile business leader or celebrity whose public persona and way of working inspires you.

THE ADVANTAGES OF ROLE MODELS
Using a role model correctly will instantly give access to a broader network of successful and inspirational people. We can learn from their actions, behaviour and workplace decision making to shape the best version of ourselves; to reflect on who we are, what we do and don’t stand for, what we are passionate about and what energises us. They should inspire us when we are faced with adversity, career roadblocks or challenging workplaces. Ultimately, role models can offer an alternative way of looking at who we are, what works for us, and what we want to achieve. Research in 2020 with the 30,000-everywoman membership found 36% cite role models as providing the confidence to make decisions they otherwise would not have taken.

WHO MAKES A ROLE MODEL?
A role model does not need to be other women or an individual within your own organisation. If you can’t find what you’re looking for close to you, widen your horizons and consider more diverse networks and groups – challenge any unconscious bias around age, ethnicity, gender, expertise, background, education, industry sector, size of business, not-for-profit vs private sector. Reflect on people you’ve come across in other areas of your life, role models can be found anywhere and are often found in unlikely places.

PAYING IF FORWARD – HOW TO BE A GREAT ROLE MODEL
Not only is it great to have role models, it is also very important to pay it forward and be a good role model yourself for other women. Some have the simplistic view that simply means observing and copying a role model who inspired you. But you must be your authentic self, your version of a role model, it should not require someone to mirror every aspect of themselves; there is a genuine scope and need for individuality and it provides an opportunity to be thought provoking and develop one’s own business behaviour.

Assess your current impact that you may have as a role model to others. Think about what it is that you are modelling, how sound it is, and consider your public behaviour but also behaviour outside the public gaze. You can then foster the kind of role model you would like to be and begin ‘walking the talk’. By doing this, you can be part of the change you want to see by showcasing and promoting your skills, attitudes, and behaviours to drive change forward and promote inclusivity.

At everywoman, we have created a global online network of women in business, that showcases inspiring role models, their stories, and best practices, that helps advance women in business everywhere. And, through our clients, awards programmes, our resources, and training, we have seen and heard just how big an impact that role models and a like-minded community can have on women having their voice heard and unlocking their potential and ambition in business.

“Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach” – Rosabeth moss Kanter, Professor, Harvard Business School.

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