Women’s Day and Female Role Models
The need for role models, in the context of a sexist society.
Posted Mar 06, 2019
What do the following have in common? Sappho, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, Virginia Woolf, Helen Keller, Jane Goodall, Gloria Steinem, Agatha Christie, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Margaret Thatcher, Elizabeth Taylor, Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey, Nadia Comăneci, Angelina Jolie, Beyonce, and Danica Patrick?
These are some of the names provided when I asked a few women, in person and online, about current or historically influential women—or women they considered their role models. Since International Women’s Day is almost here, in this post I discuss the importance of female role-models.
So who inspires you? Who are your female role models?
Perhaps Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a Nobel laureate and one of the two individuals credited with identifying the cause of AIDS (i.e. HIV)? Or do you look up to the first and only woman in history to have been awarded the Fields medal—the highest honor in mathematics (there is no Nobel Prize awarded in mathematics)—the late Maryam Mirzakhani? Some of you science enthusiasts might be fans of Dorothy Hodgkin, the Nobel laureate who determined the structure of complex molecules (e.g., insulin, penicillin, and vitamin B12) using X-ray crystallography. (For those interested in learning more about this remarkable woman, see the video below, in which her biographer reads from Hodgkin’s letters to her husband.)
Psychology of role models
Research suggests role models can be influential. For instance, one report which analyzed the role of female politicians noted that “over time, the more that women politicians are made visible by national news coverage, the more likely adolescent girls are to indicate an intention to be politically active.” In addition, “where female candidates are visible due to viable campaigns for high-profile offices, girls report increased anticipated political involvement” (p. 233).1
Previous research has also examined how role models influence people. One recent theory suggests role models serve three functions: Inspirational, potential, and behavioral.2 To illustrate, consider whether Hillary Clinton may be considered a role model for you. We need to answer three questions: One, by looking up to Clinton, do you get the feeling that if she can do it then so can you? Two, does she model how you need to think or behave in order to become a successful politician?
And three, does she inspire? That is, from watching her, do you get the sense that becoming a politician is a rewarding and fulfilling career for a woman like you?
And what would happen if you become inspired by Hillary Clinton—or Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, or even historical figures like Shirley Chisholm—to pursue a career in politics? That may benefit other women. One study found that “while ideology is the strongest predictor of voting on women’s issues, congresswomen are more likely to vote for women’s issue bills than are their male colleagues even when one controls for ideological, partisan, and district factors.” In addition, “Gender plays a most significant role in the voting of Republican representatives. While many women’s issues are supported by all Democrats, Republican women are defecting from their party’s traditional position to vote in favor of these issues” (p. 445).3
Successful women in psychology
My field of study, psychology, has also been guided by the work of many influential women—the likes of Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, Mary Ainsworth, Eleanor Maccoby, Alice Eagly, Elizabeth Loftus, Susan Fiske, and Shelley Taylor.
Let me tell you about Shelley Taylor (currently at UCLA) through highlights of a 2019 interview published in Annual Review of Psychology, in which she was interviewed by another famous psychologist, Susan Fiske.4 Early in the interview, Taylor discussed her groundbreaking research on positive illusions.5
Briefly, positive illusions refer to people’s tendency to view themselves as above average, and to hold a positive view of their abilities or their likelihood of success in the future. Taylor and colleagues suggest these illusions (when not extreme) are adaptive and essential for mental health. For instance, if I believe getting an A (instead of a B or a C) in a course is a real possibility, I am more likely to put in a greater effort, and in so doing I am likely to get a better grade than if I did not assume doing well in the course was possible for me.
In the interview, after discussing her research, Fiske asked Taylor “What was it like joining the Harvard faculty as the only female person in the room?” and shortly after, “What’s been your biggest challenge?”
Taylor replied that a big challenge:
"...was being one of the few women in the field, and putting up with an awful lot of bad stuff. When I read about Me Too, I think about whether there was anybody I knew who wasn’t sexually harassed by someone, and I don’t think so. It was a drum beat in the background that you always had to keep your eye on and worry about a little bit. That was hard (p. 7).4
Sexism and the need for female role models
As I was reading the above quote, I thought about challenges that Taylor faced as a woman; and I contemplated whether positive illusions, or optimism in general, is more important to the mental health of certain groups, such as minorities, immigrants, and of course, women.
Despite improvements in many areas, concerning gender equality and women’s empowerment, much work remains to be done here and especially in many places around the world. A look at some statistics may be illuminating:
- In a study of 189 economies, 104 have laws which prevent women from working in certain types of jobs. Just 40% of economies studied require equal pay for women doing work that is of equal value to that of men.
- Compared to men, women do 2.5 times more unpaid care and household work—cleaning, cooking, taking care of children or older people, etc. Such work is valued at 10-40% of GDP and may “contribute more to the economy than the manufacturing, commerce or transportation sectors.”
- Women hold only about 5% of Fortune 500 CEO positions.
- There are no laws protecting women from sexual harassment at work in 59 nations.
- Over 200 million girls/women have undergone genital mutilation.
- A 2017 UNICEF report suggests at least 9 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were forced into sexual activities against their will in the previous year alone.
Whatever the causes of gender inequality and mistreatment of women—whether systematic or individual, or due to malice or ignorance—a common result is that many women are rejected, excluded, dehumanized, and violated. Sexism and discrimination negatively influence women’s physical and mental health, and hurt us all in the long-term—just as mistreating men negatively affects everyone who depends on men’s societal contributions. Equality and respect, in contrast, mean a win-win strategy for everyone.
Concluding thoughts on role models
Look at this picture of Marie Curie sitting one seat away from Albert Einstein. She is the only female scientist in this famous picture from the Solvay Conference. Striking, is it not? How many women, I wonder, decided to pursue a career in sciences because they were inspired by Curie.
Role models are important especially for women and other groups facing a host of social challenges and obstacles. Role models show us what is possible; they inspire us, and demonstrate possible ways we can overcome obstacles and actualize our potential.
And when we emulate our role models and pursue our dreams, we might change the society for the better—maybe even serve as role models for other individuals. It is not only people who reach the top or become popular who have the potential to be role models; we all do. As doctors, teachers, friends, neighbors, relatives, parents, etc, we have the potential to model commitment to a valued cause, resilience, balance, healthy behavior, strength, generosity, kindness, compassion, and much else.
So do share your story. For every publicized story of a woman’s courageous battle against various forms of sexism, thousands of voices are never heard, misrepresented, or even silenced.
By fighting sexist laws and norms, inequality in the workplace, injustice in the courts, disrespect in the streets, and abuse at home, women refuse to accept that their future should be any less bright than men’s. Like Shelley Taylor, they too hear the drumbeat and yet do not give up. And in moving forward, they inspire other women—even men such as me, in my own struggles with overcoming social obstacles. On this International Women's Day, I like to thank all those women who keep going and speaking their truth, and in so doing change the world for the better.
1. Campbell, D. E., & Wolbrecht, C. (2006). See Jane run: Women politicians as role models for adolescents. The Journal of Politics, 68, 233–247.
2. Morgenroth, T., Ryan, M. K., & Peters, K. (2015). The motivational theory of role modeling: How role models influence role aspirants’ goals. Review of General Psychology, 19, 465–483.
3. Swers, M. L. (1998). Are women more likely to vote for women's issue bills than their male colleagues? Legislative Studies Quarterly, 23, 435-448.
4. Taylor, S. E., & Fiske, S. T. (2019). Interview with Shelley E. Taylor. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 1-8.
5. Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.