Food For Thought

Role Models – Who Needs Them?


“..a feminist slogan that lots of women who have done pioneering work on role models have been using for years now….is ‘if she can see it, she can be it’. In other words, if you have a visible role model you are much more likely to keep fighting to get past all of the hurdles that are still too often put in the way of girls and women…”

Sarah Brown, education campaigner for A World at School
Index on Censorship – October 2013


Lack of education has been cited as one of the largest stumbling blocks to women’s equality globally. Yet, even in countries that have made significant strides in narrowing the gender gap in education, progress has not necessarily translated to equality in the areas of economic opportunities and political leadership. And while gender equality can contribute to poverty reduction, economic growth, and effective governance, the reverse – rising incomes, political participation, and peace – do not necessarily enhance women’s rights and empowerment.

In the United States in the 1940’s, the predominant expectation was that young, middle-class women would marry and become ‘housewives’. Those who chose to enter the workforce were most often steered toward nursing, education (generally at the primary school level), or secretarial jobs. There were certainly other examples for women and girls – women on the faculty of colleges and universities, women doctors, women pilots, women scientists. But for the majority of middle-class girls, these women were too few and too far away to serve as role models.

Smiles on Wings, this month’s Dining for Women grant recipient, aids in the development of role models for girls and young women in remote Thai villages. The organization initially provided dental care to indigenous Karen hill tribes. When it became apparent the villagers did not know it was possible for a woman to become a dentist, the founder, determined to change their perception, initiated a scholarship program for young women to obtain college degrees and return to their villages to work.

 “For them to be able to return to their villages to carry out their work, it is the highest honor for the young women. As the graduates return to their villages, they not only serve as leaders in the village but also as role models to other young women. This continuing cycle is the most convincing evidence of long-term sustainability and program success.”

– Dr. Usa Bunnag, Smiles on Wings founder

When people believe in the possibility of their success, they are more likely to try and more likely to succeed.  An individual’s understanding about what is possible will determine what goals they choose, and how much effort they will invest in the face of adversity. Boys and young men (specifically white, middle-class boys) have a nearly unlimited supply of role models that demonstrate economic and political success is an achievable goal for them. Girls and young women, depending upon their culture and their aspirations, may have only individual success stories as examples.

An important attribute of an effective role model is similarity to those who aspire to emulate her or him. The more similar the role model appears, the more likely the individual is to identify. In the case of Smiles on Wings, the villagers trust the young graduates, who speak their language, share their culture and religious beliefs, and have families in the village. The young women become proximate, living role models for girls who live a day’s journey from any other female professionals.


Countries as role models

The Global Gender Gap Index was first published in 2006 in order to create a comprehensive gender parity index that is able to track gaps over time relative to an equality benchmark, thus providing information on a country’s progress relative to itself as well as to other countries. Measurements are provided for Health, Education, Economic Participation, and Political Empowerment. The Index points to potential role models by revealing those countries that are leaders in having divided resources more equitably between women and men than other countries have, regardless of the overall level of resources available.

No country in the world has achieved gender equality. The four highest ranked countries—Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden—have gender gaps of 13-19 percent. Iceland (1) holds the top spot for the fifth consecutive year and therefore continues to be the country with the narrowest gender gap in the world. The United States ranks 23rd overall, with a 26 percent gender gap.

While many developed economies have succeeded in closing the gender gap in education, few have succeeded in maximizing the returns from this investment. The Nordic countries are the exception, due to a combination of factors: the labor force participation rates for women are among the highest in the world; salary gaps between women and men are among the lowest in the world (although not non-existent); and women have abundant opportunities to rise to positions of leadership. These patterns vary across the Nordic countries, but, on the whole, these economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female employment, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labor at home, and better work-life balance for both women and men.


Promising interventions and system strategies

UNWomen’s ‘Case for a post-2015 Standalone Gender-goal’ states: “The low numbers of women in public decision-making, from national parliaments to local councils, must be remedied to ensure that women are featured prominently in democratic institutions and their voices are heard in public and private deliberations. The lack of voice in decision-making is also found in the key institutions influencing public opinion and promoting accountability, such as the media and civil society, as well as in private-sector institutions, such as in the management and governance of firms. It has its roots in unequal power relations in the family and community.”

Less than a quarter of the world’s countries have enacted legislation imposing a mandatory percentage of both genders to be represented on corporate boards. Among them are Denmark, Netherlands, Iceland, Finland, and Norway. Legislation mandating a percentage of both genders in political assemblies has been passed by Iceland and Finland.


A good example is not enough

“Critical Mass on Corporate Boards – Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance,” a study published by Wellesley Centers for Women, explains why it takes multiple women to enhance the likelihood that any of their voices and ideas will be heard. Women who have served alone report not being listened to, being excluded from socializing and even from some decision-making discussions, being made to feel their views represent a “woman’s point of view,” and being subject to inappropriate behaviors that indicate that male directors notice their gender more than their individual contributions.

Adding a second woman clearly helps. When two women sit on a board, they tend to feel more comfortable than one does alone. Each woman can ensure that the other is heard, not always by agreeing with her, but rather by picking up on the topics she raises and encouraging the group to process them fully. Two women together can develop strategies for raising difficult and controversial issues in a way that makes other board members pay attention. Even with two women, everyone is still aware of gender in ways that can keep the women from working together as effectively as they might, and the men from benefiting from their contributions.

The tipping point seems to come when three or more women serve on a board together. Having women in the room then becomes ‘normal’. There is no longer “a woman’s point of view,” because the women express different views and are free to disagree with each other. Women start being treated as individuals with different personalities, styles, and interests. Women’s tendencies to be more collaborative but also to be more active in asking questions and raising different issues start to become the boardroom norm. Having three or more women on a board can create a critical mass where women are no longer seen as outsiders and are able to influence the content and process of board discussions more substantially.

In both 2011 and 2012, less than one-quarter of Fortune 500 companies had three or more women directors serving together, according to the Catalyst Census.


Role models and the media

Everywhere the potential exists for the media to make a far greater contribution to the advancement of women. An important documentary that challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, Miss Representation, exposes how mainstream media contribute to the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America. An official selection of the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, Miss Representation was written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who hopes that exposing how women are portrayed will inspire change. “If we don’t do something about it, we’re leaving the world in a horrible place for future generations,” she said.

On October 11, 2013, the second International Day of the Girl, The Representation Project was created to “tackle the biases that impact our larger society.” See more at

Research points to promising impacts on a range of economic and social outcomes when girls and women are engaged as not just beneficiaries, but as leaders.  Some countries are taking proactive steps to increase the number of women in decision-making roles.

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

– Marian Wright Edelman
Founder and President, Children’s Defense Fund

o   “A Qualitative Examination of the Importance of Female Role Models in Investment Banks” Dissertation. Cranfield University School of Management, January 2009.


o   “2012 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors”. Catalyst Reports.


o   “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards – Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance.”  Wellesley Centers for Women’s Communications. 2006.


o   “Cultivating Women’s Participation: Strategies for Gender-Responsive Agriculture Programming.” International Center for Research on Women – Technical Brief. 2013

o   “Delaying Marriage for Girls in India Formative Research to Design Interventions for Changing Norms.”  International Center for Women on Research. Report to UNICEF. 2011.


o   “I Know. I Want. I Dream. Girls’ Insights for Building a Better World.”  International Center for Research on Women. 2013.

o   “Lesson from Cambodia: Why Female Role Models are Key to Women’s Empowerment.” TriplePundit.  June 8, 2011


o   “Reaching Gender Equity in Science: The Importance of Role Models aand Mentors.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. February 12, 2010.


o   “Role models: someone to look up to.” The Guardian. October 31, 2010.


o   “Sarah Brown: If you can see it you can be it.” Index on Censorship. October 18, 2013.


o   “The temporary importance of role models for women’s political representation.” University of Zurich. September 9, 2013.


o   “There’s more than one way to be a girl.” Pink Stinks – award-winning website by Abi and Emma Moore.


o   “Women and the Media.” WomenWatch: Directory of UN Resources on Gender and Women’s Issues.


o   “Women in Bioinformatics.” Sci-VeeTV – Making Science Visible. Montana State University.