When talking about areas in which women remain under-represented such as surgery the lack of female role models is a frequently mentioned key problem. More often than not the solution then seems to be to just present girls and women with a woman in a stereotypical male occupation. But is it really that simple? An interesting study by Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan suggests that it is not.
The authors presented biographies of men and women in either stereotypical or counter-stereotypical professions to female students. So while one group read about a female nurse and a male surgeon, the other group read about a male nurse and a female surgeon. A control group read about animals. Contrary to what might have been expected, the women who had read about stereotypical men and women as well as those who had read about counter-stereotypical men and women both showed less interest in “masculine” professions compared to the control group. It is easy to see why this happened in the group that read about stereotypical men and women: Their gender stereotypes were activated and reinforced. But what about the other group? After all the students in the counter-stereotypical group had just read about women who could succeed in surgery! The authors’ explain this finding by something called upward comparison threat. This effect refers to the fact that when comparing oneself to someone more successful, rather than feeling inspired, one often feels threatened as the success seems unattainable. In other words, rather than thinking “She can do it, so I can probably do it as well”, female students may have thought something along the lines of “Wow, she is so successful. I don’t think I could ever be like her”. This in turn lead to them perceiving themselves as even less fit for atypical professions then before exposure to these “role models”.
So does this mean that female role models are useless at best or even detrimental? By no means. It simply shows that the way in which role models can benefit women in surgery and other stereotypical masculine professions is not as simple and straightforward as one might think. It is not enough to just throw a successful female surgeon out there and hope for the best. It is important that other women can relate to her, feel that her success is attainable and thus get inspired to follow her footsteps.