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.