Do We Need Female Role Models or Do We Need Atypical Role Models?

Female role models are often thought of as a solution for the under-representation of women in certain fields such as surgery and there is indeed quite some research that backs up the fact that women make more effective role models for other women and girls. However, other research shows that this is not the whole story.

A study by Sapna Cheryan and colleagues investigated the effect of stereotypical (“nerdy”) and atypical (“normal”) computer science students on women’s interest in the field. They found that gender did not matter, but that those interacting with an atypical member showed more interest in computer science and believed that they could succeed in the field more strongly. The reason for this seemed to be that women saw the atypical computer science students as more similar to themselves.

Now, the stereotypical traits for a surgeon are certainly different than those for a computer scientist. Nevertheless, both stereotypes have more in common with traits typically associated with men (e.g. competence for computer scientists and assertiveness for a surgeon). So in a way, these findings are quite promising as they suggest that both men and women can inspire girls and women to become surgeons as long as they are seen as atypical and, more importantly, similar to oneself. This illustrates an important point about role models: We need a diverse range of role models in surgey – after all, nobody is going to be seen as similar to oneself by everyone. And if we want surgery to be a diverse field, we need to make sure that we communicate that it already is.

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