Subtitle: SciTriGrrl Overthinks Things. Again.
Role model. I’ve always thought of Role Models as famous people that one can aspire to, Marie Curie, or Ada Lovelace, for example.
In the past couple of years, it’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot from students (always women), sometimes to describe me. That’s awkward enough – flattering, of course, I’m not made of stone – but it’s often stated in the form (this one is a real example) :
“You are my role model! You are how I want to be when I grow up! You’re just so…smart! And stylish! And young!” -Anonymous Student
To be honest, I’m not that young1, some days I really would prefer to be wearing old jeans and sneakers, and I don’t relish the idea that people are looking that closely at me. But I am glad that my role as woman in STEM, a teacher of undergraduate students and mentor of graduate students, I am perceived as competent, and I am glad that a position in science is seen as aspirational. More than that, I am glad that being smart/nerdy and accomplished is seen as worthwhile by the students here.
But there are several things that gives me pause.
First, given that we often choose as role models people that we identify with, gender, ethnic and racial identity matter. I’m happy that I am now in a position to be a role model – there aren’t so many women in my subfield, though this also highlights how our current lack of diversity (we are very white) fails so many of our students.
Second, is the identification of as a role model dependent on how I look? How I dress? If I dressed in jeans and t-shirts2 would I still be perceived as a potential role model? Does it require that I dress up to teach, and dress within cultural norms for femininity? And if so, why? Isn’t being smart and successful and teaching a kickarse3 course enough?
Finally, I wonder what they are learning from me? If it’s that women can do this, can be scientists, can teach and hold the attention of a class4 for an entire semester, while wearing cute outfits and awesome shoes, then great. But what if I am adding to the pressure on women to do everything and do it well while conforming to prevailing standards of beauty? What if the message they are seeing is “In order to be successful, one MUST do it all while wearing awesome shoes, even if you really want to be wearing comfy sneakers”, then is all I am doing adding more pressure?
In short, I feel that although they identify with me in part because of how I dress, I am misleading them in some way or adding to societal pressure also because of how I dress.
Part of the discomfort I feel is that these are students who only observe me in the classroom. There is little context for them beyond that. In contrast, the graduate and undergraduate students that I interact with more, especially in the laboratory, see a much less polished presentation. These students ask me what my career path was, what struggles I overcame, they see (for better or worse) how I interact with other faculty and how I run my lab. They see me wearing a lab coat over running gear or jeans and t-shirts and sneakers, and they see me on days where I’m disheveled and cranky and exhausted. These students have more context for my success to date, and because they see the grit, because I’m in more of a mentoring role, I feel less like I am somehow misleading them or adding to the pressure of doing it all, stylishly.
How do you deal with the pressure of being seen as a role model by students? How can we know if the message we are sending is destructive or constructive? And other than being here5, what is a “good example” to set?
1and sometimes my first response has been “PLEASE DON’T MAKE MY MISTAKES”
2 For the record, my male colleagues also typically dress up to teach. I also know the answer to this question – if I wear jeans, it takes me a while to convince them I’m not a grad student.
3For this post I have had a stern talking with my impostor syndrome and locked it in a drawer. It’s kind of nice. I might leave it there to die.
4Most of the class
5From Dr. Isis:
“…one of the biggest bits of outreach an underrepresented scientist can do, is to move to the next level. Get a PhD. Get a faculty job. Get tenure. Every time you open a door ahead, you leave five open behind you and that is important to our community.”