Last week the world celebrated International Women’s Day. The tagline ‘Connecting girls, inspiring futures’ was what caught my eye, especially as I saw several events tied into the second part of this theme (especially in STEM subjects*) – providing positive female role models for young women. Which made me think, who were my role models?
The importance of role models in this context is inspiring women to take a scientific (we’ll use my own field as an example here) career. No women scientists on show = less girls taking science degrees. Which I’m sure is true and valid and important. But not the be all and end all. Until 2 years ago, when I started my PhD, I didn’t have any female scientific role models.
At secondary school we had one female science teacher who did little to inspire me. In sixth form there was also one female science (physics) teacher, but I didn’t take physics. During my degree we were exposed to many female academics but there were never any I was particularly close to, had work/life balance (i.e. family + work) that I aspired to, or ever really got to know that well.
I did, however, have lots of strong scientific role models. Just not necessarily of the female variety. I had sixth form science teachers who pushed us through “difficult” into “wow, I get this!”. An undergraduate dissertation supervisor who let me loose in his lab and made me think for myself. The picture of George Schaller which inspired me to do a PhD.
Did I subconsciously have female role models? My Mum may not be a scientist, but she worked for her degree part-time whilst we were young. And in terms of what I perceive my strengths to be as a scientist; attention to detail, determination and hard work then she’s possible the best role model I could have.
There will always be differences between men and women, this I accept. I also accept that several hundred years of societal norm possibly do need gender-specific role models to help break down our social barriers. But let’s also stop getting so worked up about what comes before ‘role model’. As long as that word is ‘good’ we’re probably helping the next generation in the right direction.
*STEM = science, technology, engineering and maths