On Being A Role Model

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

So. Hmmm.

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.”


8 thoughts on “On Being A Role Model

  1. Love the post. You’re obviously a wonderful role model! I have had some similar thoughts, and while I usually dress to teach (as in up), I make a point of teaching a few lectures in jeans, T and converse. I never start with that, but I figure it’s good for them to get the whole range. Crazy that we are even pondering this, though, isn’t it?

    Another thing I do is brazenly post kid art all over my office door.

  2. I’m a post-doc, so sometimes I’m the role model and sometimes I’m the groupie. I get a lot out of both roles.

    I think this is all a good thing. You’re showing your students what a successful, high-status female professional looks like and what she dresses like. They will learn from it and adapt it to their needs. And it’s important. If they can’t put an image to their future, how can they dream?

    I’d suggest accepting the compliments and use the conversation as a chance to ask them about their future plans. Show them that you see their potential to become like you – whatever they choose to wear.

    Famous people are all well and good as role models, but you need ‘real’ people too (in all their human imperfection). I’d argue that it’s even more valuable to show you can succeed with weaknesses than needing be good enough win 2 Nobel prizes.

    • agree with all you say Vee, make me +1 on this. Turning the compliment into a query about their plans does two things – it gives you an(other) insight into that student, and it helps them ask the hard questions of themselves.

  3. I have just been reading about one of the pioneer STEM women, Lise Meitner (but similar comments as those below could be made for any one of a number of wonderful womem – including the two mentioned by scitrigrrl). What struck me was that they had no role models. None. Meitner could not even complete her education at a public institution until after the normal age for her to finish high school – she (and 14 other women in her cohort) crammed 6 yrs work in 2 yrs under a private tutor to sit the entrance exam, when they were finally allowed into Uni in Vienna (4 of them made it that year – her sister made it into a Med course the previous year). I wonder what made them KNOW they wanted these careers, that were not only difficult to do in those times, but that were actively discouraged my *most* in their society? We think role models are so important now … who were the models for these women?

    I am so glad and thankful that they persevered, and I’m glad they paved the way for those of us who chose to follow, and I admire their grit and determination and that of the families who encouraged them. If we can make it easier for those who follow us, let’s all do our best and be grateful that whatever disadvantages and obstacles we have had, they have not been as great as those at the turn of the 20th century (and it was even more difficult before that, but some still followed their passion). And let’s be glad if our students admire us for whatever reason, because that will help them along the way and they will help the next generation along the way. Hopefully.

    btw congrats, scitrigrrl – you seem to be doing it *right* so far.

  4. Some scattered thoughts on this: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/peers-mentors-role-models-and-heroes-in-science/ Though not including thoughts on appearance; as a guy I’m fortunate not to have to worry as much about how my clothes affect how I’m viewed by others. I do dress up to teach, for the same reason you do.

    I think I’ve come to more or less the same conclusion it sounds like you’ve come to–the best way for me to be a role model and set a good example is just to do my job the best way I know how. But I can’t really control what messages or conclusions students draw from that, especially if the only time they ever see me is in class (as you say, for students with whom you interact a lot, you can take on more of a mentoring role, which is rather different than being a role model, I think).

  5. At my last teaching position, the decision was somewhat out of my hands because the department had a faculty dress code. (It was clearly written with no thought of female professors, but that’s another story — what matters is that it *did* establish the level of formality expected.)

    My compromise was to dress up for classes and other daytime activities, and to wear comfy casual clothes for evening office hours, review sessions, etc.

  6. Pingback: Gender Issues in Taxonomy: more than just Latin » Biodiversity in Focus Blog

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