Guest Blog: Conflicting Goals and Role Models

I’m still on vacation (we all know how important work-life-balance is!), so this week another awesome colleague of mine, Hanne Watkins from the University of Melbourne, is filling in and reflecting on role models and conflicting goals in the male-dominated world of academia.

I had gotten pretty far in my academic career – all the way to Honours – before I had a female role model. The fact surprised me then, and troubles me now. Had I really gone through all of High School and undergrad without having a female professional to look up to?

It is also possible, however, that I did have female role models before that, but that I hadn’t realised they were female. It sounds silly when I put it like that, but I think I can explain. Prior to my Honours year, I might have had role models – teachers, writers, researchers, politicians – who I looked up to as figureheads in their respective professional and public domains, but where their gender (and mine) was irrelevant to their position as “my role model”.

But regardless. In Honours, the gender of my role model was suddenly relevant. She (let’s call her K) was a lecturer at my uni; she was smart and friendly and gave me career advice. These are all (arguably) gender-neutral activities, so I don’t want to overstate the centrality of the gender aspect of her role. Gender became salient to me, however, for two reasons. First, because K herself often talked about gender, feminism, and academia. Second, because she was over forty, single, and childless.

Going by cultural stereotypes, “forty, single, and childless” sounds like a woman’s nightmare. But K wasn’t living a nightmare. She was happy, she was an academic, she was smart and friendly and gave me career advice – and I wanted to be like her. Prior to meeting K, I had on some (mostly unconscious) level assumed that children would inevitably enter the picture at some point in my future. She freed me from that illusion, by showing me an alternative reality; a reality I wanted for myself as well, and which, thanks to her, looked achievable! Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was something of a revelation.

I’m not overly familiar with research on role models. But, I believe one theory suggests that for role models to “work”, you first have to have a desired goal, then you have to see someone who has achieved that goal, and then you have to perceive a “fit” between yourself and that person. (And some of the causal arrows probably go in both directions.) K ticked all the boxes. I wanted to be a childless academic in the future, K was that person now, and I was like K in that we were both female. (And, you know, smart and friendly and fond of dispensing advice. 😉 )

For a while, things were going along swimmingly.

Then, something dramatic happened: I started to want to have kids.

By that stage I had met lots of other amazing female academics, some of them older than me, some of them not; some of them with kids, some of them without. So you’d think I could find a role model among them, right?

Unfortunately, it hasn’t been that simple (surprise surprise). Thinking about the research on role models, however, has made me ponder how my predicament can be understood through the theory of role models I described above.

I have two desired goals: have children, and be an academic. I’m not willing to give up either goal, which means my combined goal is to be an academic who has children. As I said above, I have met plenty of women (and men!) who have achieved that goal. However, I wouldn’t describe any of them as my role model for this combined goal. Instead, it’s as if my goals obstinately generate their own, separate, role models.

On the one hand, I aspire to be like some awesome academics I know; whether they have children or not seems irrelevant. With some of them, I perceive a fit – they are “like me” in some ways, and so they are the ones I would call my role models, and they are the ones who inspire and motivate me.

On the other hand, I aspire to be like some awesome mothers I know; what else they do seems irrelevant. Unfortunately, with none of these do I perceive a fit – because none of them are academics. This makes me feel as if my goal of being a mother is incompatible with being an academic, even if, as I said above, I know this isn’t true.


So. In some ways, what I have just written is just another version of the “oh no I have conflicting goals and I will have to find a way to compromise”-dilemma. So I’m sorry that it’s old news.

However, I think the new news, to me at least, is that the theory of role models can help me understand why these goals of mine seem to conflict at such a deep level.

Sometimes, the parenting-working conflict seems to be portrayed as a matter of time-management, organisation, and communication – certainly challenging, but relatively “superficial” things. Seeing the conflict as one between competing role models, however, suggests that it’s not just a about what I might want to do to achieve my goals. It is about who I want to be.

No wonder it’s difficult.

8 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Conflicting Goals and Role Models

  1. The ‘role model’ who was single, childless and forty may as well have been a man. What is the purpose of a ‘female role model’ after all? Do we really still differentiate on surgeons on the basis of their gender? I thought those days were long gone. Surely the role model you were looking for has children and an academic career of her own.

  2. Thanks Emma. I think Hanne’s piece very nicely illustrates the difficulties of finding just the right role model, and the fact that who we see as role models vary over time. For many of us, much of the time, gender isn’t important in a role model. In line with this, when we did a survey with women medics, we found that they were just as likely to identify men as women, and did not generally perceive gender as important. However, when they wanted to know how to combine family and work, gender assumed greater importance. More than anything, junior female medics wanted to see evidence that it was possible to succeed in their careers while having a family. You can read more about this research here:

  3. Gosh, thanks for the reply and the link! As a female surgeon with a husband and two children, I often get approached by female junior doctors and female medical students who say they think I’m inspiring and they’re really pleased to know that ‘it’s possible.’ I’m afraid my response to this is “Of COURSE it’s possible!” because there are very good procedures in place for maternity leave, we get paid during it and our jobs are held for us, we have the privilege of applying for part-time work if we wish, and the cost of childcare is large but very much worth it in terms of “having it all.” My personal feeling is that having a lovely family helps me keep my feet on the ground, and keeps my spirits up at times when difficult work situations would otherwise drag me down.

    I think, as a wife and mother, I’m in a BETTER situation than female surgeons who don’t have a family. If younger women see me as a role model, that’s great, but I want them to know that “having it all” is very much possible, it’s not without its problems but at the end of the day it makes my life, and my career, a much richer and more balanced place to be.

  4. I think one needs many role models for different aspirations, because no two people is ever going to be exactly alike despite our best to emulate someone we admire. I even have a different role models for different clinical problems! Most of my professional role models are male with a few females (being in a male-dominant field), while my personal role models are mainly female. We have our own lives to live and our own decisions to make. Role models are there to teach us the consequences of choices they have made in their lives but it doesn’t mean we have to make all the same ones to achieve the same goals. They are just points of reference and a sounding board for achieving one goal out of many we have set for ourselves. So does it not make sense to have a different role model for each goal and making it work for yourself?! That’s just the way I have viewed it throughout my life do far.

  5. That’s a good point, surgeryattiffanys. The role models I’ve admired the most and wish to emulate are all male! I think this is because I’m more attracted by peoples behaviour than their gender. For example, my favourite mentors have all been older men with exquisite surgical skills, a gentle countenance and a habit of turning up early and working really hard, never letting anyone down. THOSE are the guys I see as my role models, and I’ve been lucky enough to work for three of them.

    I guess the main point I’d like to make is that the title of this article mentions ‘conflicting goals.’ I don’t think this is a positive way to view our situation, in fact I think it’s an unnecessarily negative way to view it.

    In this day and age, being a woman in surgery doesn’t have to mean our goals are conflicting. As I mentioned above, there are procedures for childbearing during a career. If the end goal is to have an academic consultant post AND a happy marriage AND two children, this isn’t a conflicting goal, it’s a wonderful goal. Let’s try to encourage other women to share this goal.

  6. I agree with ERH’s sentiments about medical students who assume that having kids and a surgical career is some kind of myth. It is crazy, especially in the UK where we have such generous provision of maternity and part time training opportunities. Clearly there is a perception problem though and medical students are still getting the message that consultant surgeons are men and all the women are a minority group of spinsters. Maybe we need to wait for a rise raise the profile of female surgeons in general.

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