By Valerie Martinelli, MPA – Leadership, Life, & Career Coach/ HR & Management Consultant
We talk a lot about how we can get more women into leadership positions. Mentorship and coaching are very critical parts of this, however, what about role models? We all have those that we have looked up, whether they are family members, educators, or employers who have taken a special interest in us. However, what about other role models? The ones that make us say “I want to be like her?” Role models are a great help in leadership situations. Leadership role models are already in a position of authority and that you look up to and aspire to be like.
Imagine a young girl: a daughter, a niece, a sister, or a girl in your neighborhood. She is smart, ambitious, and she believes in herself and her abilities. From her very young age she already has a desire to lead and to inspire others to greatness, to surpass expectations, to enhance the world. However, as she grows up, two elements will affect her ability to lead: her confidence and her connections. Throughout her life, she will either receive what she needs to build these two key components of leadership or she won’t.
There are many women who serve as models for how to lead and how to become leaders. They’ve taken corporations, governments, academic institutions, and other organizations to new heights. They’ve shown other women the opportunities and the power that they hold in their own hands. Yet for all their achievements, these women represent quite a small percentage of leaders overall. How can we empower more women to follow their footsteps? The response to this is vital to empowering all women, our businesses, governments, and economy.
Motivational Theory of Role Modeling
Research shows that some people believe leadership is a talent which is relatively fixed while others think that it is a skill that is acquired. The more that a person believes that leadership is a skill to be developed, the greater the positive influence of role models can have on behavior. The concept of Motivational Theory of Role Modeling states that the power of role models can be harnessed to increase motivation, reinforce any existing goals, and facilitate the adoption of new goals. In essence, if an individual has a role model that they wish to emulate to some extent then it aids in the formulation of goals and aspirations.
Role models are also important because we need to continue to influence younger generations. Role models are important to youth because it is one major way to impact their learning. A substantial number of studies have shown that humans learn through modeling others. As these experiences accumulate through adolescence, teens decide what socially acceptable behavior is and what it is not. They also learn strategies for achieving their goals. Role models can have positive or negative impacts on children. To have to positive impacts on younger generations of females, it is up to us – the current generation — to give them something to aspire to.
What About the Data?
Studies have sought to identify how women were socialized to leadership growing up by exploring their self-perceptions, discovering which characteristics are associated with leadership, examine who influenced these women in learning about applying business leadership, and discover more concrete ways to help more women move forward into leadership roles. There isn’t a shortage of ambition among women, however, data does suggest a strong disconnect because strong hesitancies were found. More than half of women stated that as women they are more cautious in taking steps towards leadership roles and some reported that they find it difficult to envision themselves as a leader. This shows us something vital: Women have the desire to lead, but something is holding them back.
Confidence and connections play an important role throughout life. We need to ask if our girls are being encouraged enough to lead? Do they have role models? Are they being offered enough support and development opportunities? These types of factors are significant for future leaders. If they are available, then she is more likely to move down the path to leadership. If not, her aspirations of becoming a leader can remain out of reach.
What Can Be Done with This Information?
There are ways try to change the course of things, such as through coaching and mentoring, however, our best chance of getting more women into leadership needs to begin when they are young. Some question what age is appropriate for leadership development. By middle school girls are already seeking to be like their peers. By high school, girls are dealing with an entirely different world and it is much more difficult to have a positive impact. Once young women are in college they have already begun to lean towards or away from leadership positions. Leadership development should begin at a young age so girls can form a strong sense of self and other key skills, such as communication, activism and advocacy, social responsibility and awareness, and empathy development, as well as the advancement of the key components of emotional intelligence. If we can instill the key leadership qualities from a younger age, then there can be opportunities to reverse the current course of the low levels of women in leadership.
I do plenty of confidence coaching with women and there is quite a bit involved. Confidence can be lacking due to one central event in life. Oftentimes, it is workplace related, which makes it more difficult for women to believe in themselves and their abilities to lead. Growth and development of others is not something that should be taken lightly. As I have written about in the past, some women have been abused, harassed, and bullied in the workplace. I have seen mentors and coaches that have done more harm than good, whether it was intentional or not; I encourage my fellow coaches to consider each individual person that they are working with. A strict set of guidelines or approaches may or may not be helpful because there can be deeper issues that need to be worked out first. Our best chance at reversing the number of women in leadership is to begin at a younger age so once women are in the workforce they already have a strong sense of self and a confidence level that can withstand some of the elements that come with full-time working life as women.
Role models are also important for girls. It is difficult to aspire to something if you can’t see it. Seeing women in charge can persuade parents of girls and teens that women can run things and changed their ambitions. Changing their perceptions and giving hope can have an impact on reality.
If we can have an impact on reality then there are opportunities to get more women into government leadership roles, which can also have an influence on our public policies, workplaces, economy, society, and quality of life. I cannot think of a better reason to continue to inspire more girls and women into leadership.
Valerie Martinelli, MPA is the CEO & Owner of Valerie Martinelli Consulting, LLC and Founder of Innovate 50/50. Connect with Val on Twitter @AskVMC or via website askVMC.com.