The Rejection of Successful Women as Role Models

Women in fields in which they are under-represented often name the lack of female role models as a barrier in their careers. Yet, research often finds that the successful women who are available are often rejected. They are seen as pushy, overly masculine and cold and generally not as someone most women can identify with – even when no information indicating these traits is given. But why is that?

A study by Parks-Stamm and colleagues suggests that this might be a strategy to protect our beliefs about our own competence. In other words, if we saw a successful woman as highly competent and on top of that as nice and likable, this might undermine our own confidence. After all, how are we supposed to compete with that? The authors tested this idea by presenting men and women with information about a highly successful woman. In some cases, this woman was described as warm and likable, whereas in other cases no such information was given. Unsurprisingly, both men and women in the former condition described her as less pushy and cold than those in the latter condition. What was interesting, however, was that those women who had been told that the successful target was warm and nice, rated their own competence as lower compared to those who were able to penalise the potential role model.

So what does this mean? Should successful women be presented as unlikable and cold? Certainly not. It is, however, important, that they are described in ways that make them seem attainable. Evidence for this claim comes from a second study by the authors in which they show that the negative effect of preventing women from penalising the role model disappears when they are given positive information about their own future success.

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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.

Inspirational Women in Surgery

Although women remain under-represented in surgery even today, there are some extraordinary cases of women in surgery dating almost a century back. This article, titled “Australia’s female military surgeons of World War I” tells the story of three women who worked as surgeons at times in which women in medicine were sailing against the wind much more than today. These stories are informative and inspiring and definitely worth a read!

More on Role Models in Surgery

As discussed in a previous post, role models for women need not necessarily be female to be inspirational to women. Here are some interesting quotes from men and women in surgery talking about female and male role models and who inspired them along their career path:

“Role models are really important but when I was trained there weren’t many women role models. The few women that had made it into surgery were really quite daunting characters and they weren’t necessarily inspirational. They were very committed to their jobs and they weren’t doing something I necessarily wanted to do, whereas there were an awful lot of men in surgery who were inspirational. They were very well balanced, they had a lot of interests, they were very intelligent, sensitive men – and they were role models at that time. And they were also the ones who were saying ‘look, there is no reason why you can’t do this’.”

“I think what you need is someone senior who takes you under their wings from a young age and says ‘we think that you can do this, we think you have the potential, we are interested in you as a neurosurgeon’. I had that in neurosurgery, so when I left my neurosurgical post to go to take up an ENT post they said ‘I don’t think you’re doing the right thing’ and they were right. And of course that is a huge influence. In fact, I think they had more influence than my parents did in terms of my future ultimate role. I didn’t have the opportunity to have female role models at this stage. There wasn’t another female neurosurgeon who I could ask about the practicality of running a life, having babies and being a neurosurgeon. But I had enough support from the male counterparts that I came across to know that wasn’t an insurmountable problem.”

“I have many female consultants in my department in Spain. I’m thinking of two of them because I really enjoy working with them. One of them is a breast surgeon and mother to two children and I’ve been operating with her during a long microsurgery with her pregnancy belly and it was really fun. She is really committed to her job and to her family. The other one is a lower limb surgeon and she performs the best surgeries I’ve seen. It’s a real pleasure to work with her.”

“I didn’t have any medics in my family to get the stories so surgery is something you see on TV and they’re always depicting men in surgery and then the women who are struggling to be at the same level as them. And then as a student I’d come to the hospital and I’d have my placements and every time in general surgery I’d see these old school surgeons and the top ones were always male. I hardly saw any females. My female role models came from elsewhere in medicine. Eventually I started reading about female surgeons out there. When I went to the Royal College of Surgeons to take my exams, there is this amazing mural on the wall in one of the rooms and it has all the female surgeons in the whole country who are eminent. And as cheesy as it sounds – I’d often look up to that mural in times when I just couldn’t revise anymore for my exams and I’d think ’one day I want my name to be up there’.”