Henley Principal Consultant, Noa Muratsubaki, writes about female role models:

The other month, I wrote about my resolution to tackle my own unconscious gender biases. This wasn’t something borne out of an ambition to achieve a lofty ideal but was something driven purely by my maternal desire to pave a better life for my daughter. I realise the gender problem is nothing new. It’s something that impacts every young girl and woman walking this planet throughout their lifetime to varying degrees, irrespective of their socioeconomic backgrounds. Having been a minority myself for most of my life living as a female, foreign immigrant in the UK, some of the challenges associated with gender diversity has simply been a part of my life, as I’m sure it is for many others. My outlook really only began to change when I fell pregnant with my daughter, and I began to consider what her life might look like as a woman and as a woman of mixed race. Suddenly tackling my unconscious gender (and ethnic) biases, being aware of how those biases can shape my child’s worldview, and doing my bit to help develop a much more diverse and inclusive society became much more important to me. I suppose like any parent, you start to consider the legacy you’re leaving behind for your children.

In my last blog, I talked about the socialisation of leadership which tells us that a woman’s inclination to lead doesn’t begin at adulthood but much earlier in their childhood; that childhood lessons and early exposure to leadership have a significant impact on a woman’s perceptions of her ability to lead. It tells us the importance of having strong female role models. This is something we hear all of the time. We need more female role models not just in the workplace but we need younger, more accessible role models whom girls and boys, and young people in general can learn from and aspire to be. I think most of us would agree with that but my question is where do we find them?

I think one of the biggest reasons we don’t see as many female role models is due to the misconception that we have to be perfect in order to be one. Even though we may be committed to creating more female role models, and even though we all have skills, attributes and experiences that would be valuable to share with others, how many of us women see themselves as a role model? How many of us have the confidence to silence our inner critic? For me, I’ve always seen the women in the generations above me to fulfil this task… women who are wiser and more experienced than me. After all, what do I know about being a role model? What makes me think I’m qualified to be one?

I’ve had many conversations with women who have shared similar stories with me. That perhaps they didn’t always feel qualified to become a mentor or speak up as a female role model until they reached a certain level of seniority and could enjoy the respect that came from being in their positions. Others echoed some of my own experiences. When they were younger, it was important to them to be able to prove themselves based on their merit. And in order to be accepted, they had to compete on the same playing field as their male counterparts so joining a women’s networking group for example, ran the risk of singling themselves out… but the majority of women see the value in helping other women, and do genuinely want to support younger generations in the workplace, especially young girls in the earlier stages of their lives so why is there such a disconnect?

What is missing is women leading with confidence to be themselves, and I’ve come to realise that this barrier which we put up, sadly to our own detriment, comes from our unconscious bias around how we define concepts such as leadership, ambition and success. We’ve become so conditioned to measuring ourselves against a definition of a role model looking, feeling and behaving like a man that when it comes to women becoming female role models, we feel we need to be just like them. I recently read an article about authentic female leadership and in it, Brigette McInnis-Day, COO for SAP SuccessFactors says “being a female leader doesn’t mean that my human nature as a woman needs to take a back seat”.

And interestingly, when you strip it back and think about the female role models in our lives, and the female execs and these incredible women in business whom you may only know by reputation, in actual fact all share the same challenges, assumptions and fears. Being a female role model or leader doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be good at everything. That doesn’t matter. It’s about leading with confidence to be yourself and so I guess it begins with recognising this, as I’m doing and learning that you, too have a significant ability – and responsibility – to help other women advance.