Female Role models are right in front of us, if only we took the time to notice them
For some reason I’m often asked the question “Do we have enough female role models? Don’t you think we should have more female role models?” A recent occasion was on the John Murray show on RTÉ1, when I was interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan (listen to the 12′ podcast from 8 January 2014 here).
Most of the time the person asking the question expects me to say something along the lines of “We need more women everywhere, there aren’t enough women in this and that area…” But this is not my opinion.
I once attended a talk where the speaker fiercely contended that women are underrepresented in so many areas and that we need to drive more women into these fields. The speech was very well received, and while I could see her point, I can’t agree.
But how can I disagree? It just takes one look at the statistics, doesn’t it? It is true that women are underrepresented… According to the European Commission,
Women are seriously under-represented when it comes to the boards of management of Ireland’s top businesses too. Irish women make up just 8.7 per cent of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 15.8 per cent.
And according to European Commission statistics published in January 2013, there are no women board chairs or CEOs in any of the top publically listed companies in the ISEQ20 index. Irish women account for 6.5 per cent of executive directors in Ireland’s top companies and 10.3 per cent of non-executive directors. Both figures are well below the respective EU averages of 10.2 per cent and 16.8 per cent.
This is despite the fact that, according to Eurobarometer figures, 96 per cent of the Irish population believe that given equal competences, women should be equally represented in positions of leadership in companies.”
Still, I don’t think we “need” more female role models. Because there’s no shortage of them. What we have to do is make the effort to notice them, let them be known as role models and encourage them to be proud of it.
Female role models are EVERYWHERE
I’m privileged to have had an inside track on this in the recent past and it’s something I feel very strongly about. As I’m proactively growing my business, I’m meeting new people and networking with remarkable individuals who are a thousand steps ahead of me. Believe me, female role models are everywhere.
And it’s not just the same old, same old ten ladies that regularly get wheeled out of a cupboard just to prove that Irish women are successful. A 2012 article in the Irish Independent listed the top 10 most powerful Irish business women and their achievements. While I did know some of them, most of them I’d never heard of.
The thing is, these women are very busy achieving tremendous things and they don’t have the time to toot their own horn. And, having met a small number of them, I also know that they’re hard workers with a modest, no-nonsense mentality: while they’re very happy to share their experience and give rousing speeches, they wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable flaunting themselves as role models. Which is my point exactly.
Make the time to seek out and emulate role models
Deliberately choosing role models should be part and parcel of your success strategy. If you want to reach for the stars and do great things, you need to be able to look up to somebody who has done something similar, or who exhibits the qualities you are striving for, if only to prove to yourself that it can be done.
A role model is somebody you can outsource your self-confidence to. You might think “I could never do that…” But how about instead “They did it… And they’re not mutants, they’re just normal human beings. So perhaps if they did it so can I…” Role models help you focus your vision on doing something that you’re not sure you can.
This is different from choosing someone as an inspiration. An inspiration is somebody who is just ahead of you and gives you the impetus to get up and go. You might not want to model everything (or even anything!) about them, but they spur you on to get started. A role model fills you with awe – and the desire to emulate. You want to observe them and try to reverse-engineer their achievements and what took them there.
In my latest book, The Savvy Guide to Making More Money, I tell the story of six wonderful people, not that close to me, who were my role models in secondary school. I would think of them when I had a choice between studying for a test or going out in the sun, when watching TV was much more appealing than writing an essay, or when I was hesitating between calling it a day and studying for just ten or twenty more minutes.
And I hardly knew them, since they were in their sixth year when I was in my first. Watching them go up and down, up and down the stage at the school awards ceremony, I thought their achievements were otherworldly. But I so wanted to be on that stage, too, when the time came!
The memory of the school awards acted like a compass and would suddenly appear in my mind every time the going got tough. Then I knew what to do.
More role models than you can shake a stick at,
simply off the top of my head
So, who will you choose?
In politics, we can lament the fact that only 16% of TDs are women. But we can also look up to Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, to Geraldine Byrne Nason, Second Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach, and to Catherine Day, who is the most senior civil servant in Europe as the Secretary General of the European Commission…
In business, the list goes on and on and on, of Irish women who have made their mark at home and abroad: Rosaleen Blair, the founder of Alexander Mann Solutions; Mary McKenna, the Managing Director of Tour America; Deirdre O’Connor, the Managing Director of Goldman Sachs; Gina Quin, the CEO of Dublin Chamber of Commerce…
In the media, we can choose between Marian Finnucane, Norah Casey, Claire Byrne, Miriam O’Callaghan, Kathryn Thomas…
In the arts, how about those numerous women who have made Ireland so famous? Take Moya Doherty, Imelda May, Sinead O’Connor, Maeve Binchy…
These are just a few! I could fill this post with other names and there are lots of people I know who could fill it with names I don’t know.
Now perhaps some might raise their eyebrows at some of the people on this list because they made mistakes or are not perfect. Well, who is? And then don’t forget the glee with which the media can swoop down on a woman just because she stumbled in the glare of the spotlight.
I choose to see these women, each and every one of them, as remarkable people who excel at what they do and exhibit certain virtues that I might want to cultivate. Besides, your role model is not your new best friend – you can pick and choose what you want to emulate, you don’t have to accept all their characteristics wholesale.
The role model in your life
And another thing where we’re going wrong is that we only want to call role models those people who are in the public eye. When we’re saying “Oh we need more female role models”, we’re instantly discarding the huge achievements of women everywhere. As if what so many women achieve every day wasn’t worth a second look, as if they couldn’t be role models and we needed yet-to-be-found, other, “better” role models…
I’m sure we all have a woman, or more likely, several women, in our immediate circle of family and friends, who are absolutely remarkable. They’re highly productive career people, wonderfully nurturing mothers and partners, rock-solid friends, amazing members of their community… Can you still think of that person and think “We need more female role models”, without feeling bad that society is poo-pooing her achievements?
Simply look around you for ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I dare you to say of these people “Oh but they’re not really role models”.
DIY: Make Your Own Role Model
Now you need to ask yourself: “If I want a role model, who am I going to look for? How am I going to notice them? What is it that I am looking for, what achievements or traits do I want to emulate?”
Don’t wait for role models to fall into your lap through the media.
Invite business women to speak at your networking group. Invite high-achieving women to speak at your school. Reach out to remarkable women who are featured in your local paper. I wager you will be spoiled for choice.
Then learn from them and do them proud.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Irish Times.
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