How Do Role Models Work?

We’ve highlighted the importance of role models in general and female role models in particular in a number of quite a few of our past posts. Research suggests that role models serve different functions and lead to different outcomes and that gender is not necessarily important for all of them. However, other studies suggest that gender does matter, especialy in domains in women are under-represented, and one reason why that might be the case is that they can change stereotypes.

STEM/M fields in general and surgery in particular are stereotypically associated with men and maleness. The first person one might imagine when thinking about a surgeon is likely to be a man and when asked to describe a surgeon, stereotypically masculine traits such as “cold” might be used. The so called Stereotype Inoculation Model developed by Nilanjala Dasgupta argues that role models might act as a “social vaccine” and inoculate against these stereotypes which prevent women from entering or staying in STEM/M fields.

She proposes that when exposed to other minority members in one’s domain (e.g. other women in surgery), minority members can identify with this person, which then leads to changes in stereotypes and a stronger identification with the field (e.g. with surgery), but also a more positive attitude towards the field, social belonging in the field, perceived threat and one’s perceptions of one’s own abilities.

Thus, while male role models might be just as effective in some regards (e.g. for learning by emulation), visible female role models in surgery are important – not just for those women already on their path to becoming surgeons, but also for those who might not have made their career choices yet.

Male and Female Role Models in Academic Medicine

The lack of female role models is often cited as one reason of the under-representation of women in various fields – surgery among them – and psychological research shows that role models can indeed be very beneficial. They can teach us how to reach our goals, demonstrate that goals are attainable and inspire us to adopt new goals. However, some women in surgery argue that role models don’t necessarily need to be female and that male role models can be just as effective.

A study by Lori Bakken suggests that it depends. Women and men in different career stages were asked about their own ability beliefs with regards to a number of skills such as scientific writing. They were further asked about who they envisioned as an expert role model while making those assessments as well as a number of questions about this role model. For example, they were asked which important qualities the expert had. Results showed that male and female participants who described a male role model did not differ in what skills they based their role model selection on. “Multiple publications”, “supportiveness” and “scientific knowledge” were most widely reported both by male and female participants. Female participants who had chosen a female expert, however, reported “problem solving abilities” and “communication skills” more frequently in comparison to men who had chosen men.

Thus, it seems that men make just as good role models for women who are looking for similar qualities in a role model as their male counterparts do. However, for those who value other qualities such as problem solving ability or communication skills, female role models might be more important.

The Effects of Talking About Gender Discrimination

Gender discrimination in the workplace is a controversial topic and some argue that talking about it might over-emphasize the problem and prevent women from entering fields in which they are under-represented. In fact, since starting this blog, we have received some comments along these lines on our posts ourselves, for example when talking about the glass cliff. These concerns are certainly not unjustified. However, knowing about gender discrimination might also help girls and women as it shows them that negative feedback that they might have received may not be due to their lack of skill or talent, but due to gender discrimination. So talking about gender discrimination seems to be a double-edged sword. But what does the literature have to say about this matter?

Weisgram and Bigler were intrigued by this debate and investigated how providing girls with information about gender discrimination in science influences their attitudes towards and interest in a career in science. Two groups of middle school aged girls took part in a one hour session with the aim of sparking their interest in computer science. After this, one of the groups also attended a session on historic and contemporary gender discrimination in scientific fields. The effects of the one hour session in itself proved to be rather disappointing. The girls were neither more interested in a scientific career nor did they feel more confident in their scientific abilities. What is more, after the intervention they had stronger beliefs that men were better at science than women. Interestingly, this was quite different for those girls who had been taught about gender discrimination: They felt more confident about their scientific abilities and had a higher opinion on science in general. However, their interest in science did not change.

Nevertheless, although the positive effects were limited, this study suggests that making barriers and obstacles that women face explicit does not have the suspected negative effects.

The Lack of Women in STEM/M Education

Our images of “the doctor” or “the scientist” as middle aged or older white men are formed early on and the lack of visibility of the women of those fields in text books and education in general is certainly not helping in attracting girls into these disciplines.

Luckily it seems that independent creators of educational content, for example on YouTube, are not following this trend. There are some great educational resources by women in STEM/M and about women in STEM/M out there and I’d like to share some of them with you this week – feel free to share them with your kids, your friends’ kids or anyone who might benefit from them. I shall go back to posting about research and the like in my next post.

Videos about women in STEM/M:

From the “SciShow: Great Minds” series: Elizabeth Blackburn, Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Barbare McClintock and Henrietta Leavitt


A few great STEM/M channels hosted by women (but there are many more):

The Brain Scoop, hosted by Emily Graslie, from the Field Museum of Natural History

Vi Hart – entertaining math nerdiness by .

I F***ing Love Science, hosted by Elise Andrew


Also: Happy Holidays everyone!

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.

Demanding Careers, Work-Life-Balance, Family Life and Happiness

Just like surgery, academia is a time consuming career to have and poses a challenge to a good work-life-balance. Radhika Nagpal, a professor for computer science at Harvard, is a woman who made it into a field that is – just like surgery – still very male dominated. In a recent guest blog post on Scientific American she talks about how she manages her life, her career, her family and her happiness. Although not all her points may apply to surgery, her article is certainly worth a read and contains some useful advice for managing a demanding career in general.

In her article she describes seven things she did to make sure to enjoy her life and her career despite its demands:

  • Pretending that her position was a seven year post-doc to take the pressure off her and rather enjoy being able to work with some amazing people in her field
  • Stopping to take advice and rather go her own way (such as focusing on her research instead of trying to network like crazy)
  • Creating a “feelgood” e-mail folder that contained her successes such as job offers and which she could read when things weren’t going as well
  • Working fixed hours in fixed amounts – both in her career and as a parent.
  • Trying to be the best “whole” person that she can. Realising that it is impossible to be the best, most dedicated academic who spends all her time working as well as the best parent who dedicates her entire life to her kids and the best partner who is there for her other half in every moment, supporting him always and unconditionally, she decided that it was a much more attainable goal to be neither of those but rather the best “whole” person who combines a little bit of all of this.
  • Finding real friends outside of her field who are not concerned with her career.
  • Having fun “now” rather than constantly working towards a future in which the fun is hopefully going to happen.

To read the full article (do it! It’s really inspiring!), click here: The awesomest 7 year postdoc or how I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure track faculty life