Why Do We Need Role Models?

I originally wrote this as a comment to my interview over on Page 3.14 and then decided it ought to be its own entry. I thank BSCI for raising this issue, and admire BSCI's prescience, for lauding my role models and mentors is, indeed, the subject of a forthcoming post.

BSCI, regarding the role model thing: role models can do many, many different things for a person. One of the things they can do is model for the person a particular way of being a particular kind of person in a particular field of endeavor. Men have many, many, many models to choose from of how to be men in science. They have so many models to choose from, that they are not even conscious of the fact that they are choosing a model of a way to "be" a man in science. They don't think about what it means to be a man in science, because they take it as a given that you can be a man in science (or engineering). There are a plethora of models to choose from, so it's not a problem.

There are, however, precious few models to choose from of how to "be" a woman in science or engineering. And as we know, it is not assumed by many to be natural or normal to "be" a woman in science/engineering. On top of that, because there are so few of us, whatever one of us does, is taken to represent what ALL women would/should/could do or say in a given situation. We are often, simultaneously, ignored AND under a spotlight. We shouldn't be there - but since we are, we should be conscious of that fact that we are representing ALL WOMANKIND.

Now, this is a lot of pressure for any one woman to deal with. It is nice, under such circumstances, to see once in awhile some other woman who has made it through the mill and is still somewhat functional. To observe how she carries herself. What she does in public. How she dresses - because we know the way women dress is much more important, much more noticed, than the way men dress*. We want our female role models, not just for scientific inspiration, but just to know that it can be done. They don't even necessarily have to be our mentors - a lab supervisor, or someone we go to daily or weekly for advice. They just need to exist somewhere nearby, in our orbit, telling us by their lived presence that OUR existence is not an anomaly, not an impossibility, not a joke - but a real, true, possible, wonderful thing.

*See below the fold for the asterisk.

*I wish those two Chronicle of Higher Education articles that the links will take you to did not require a subscription. Here are two good quotes, the first from the link to the article by James. M. Lang, "Looking Like a Professor", and the second from the link to the article by Pamela Johnston, "Dressing the Part".

Professors are both blessed and cursed with the lack of a standard uniform. That we have no dress code -- either of the coveralls-and-name-tag variety or of the suit-and-tie variety -- gives us a sartorial freedom that, unlike some of my colleagues, I'm not sure I enjoy all that much.

The colleagues who seem to take the most pleasure in our fashion freedom fall at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

On one end sit the sharp dressers -- the tailored, the natty, the formal, the chic. Male sharp dressers wear ties to class every day. The ties match the shirts, and the shirts are sometimes in bright, bold colors. They wear brown and black shoes; sometimes those shoes are shiny. The most extreme wear suits -- not khaki pants and a blue sports coat -- but actual suits, in which the pants and the coat have been cut from the same material.

I'm not quite as educated about the nature of the female sharp dressers, but they seem to wear things like scarves and pointy shoes. Suit jackets cross gender boundaries, so I see some of those on women as well.

I will confess that I wonder about the motivations of the sharp dressers. I wonder whether they use sharp dressing as a means to establish their authority with students: "Within these pointy shoes are contained the wisdom of the ages. The pointy shoes make me the boss."

Mr. Lang is not as educated about the nature of female sharp dressers. He can afford this ignorance. Women, on the other hand, cannot. In a world where you will receive student evaluations with comments like "I could not learn in this course because Professor X's bra distracted me" or where your thesis advisor might say something to you like "how nice that you wore a skirt today. That really brightens up the lab," - you know, as if you were a walking potted plant - a woman has to be ultra-conscious of every fashion choice. Perhaps pointy shoes DO make me the boss, if they frighten you into thinking I'll kick you in the balls with them if you make any more stupid-ass comments like that brightening-up-the-lab bit. (oh dear. I can just imagine how upset the friends of the un-named fictitious threatened man are going to be about that. )

Ms. Johnston tells us:

...extreme casual means different things for men and women...It should come as no surprise to readers that numerous studies confirm what many of us have known for a long time: Students respond differently to male and female professors in the classroom, and evaluate us differently as well.

During class and on their final course evaluations, students comment on the clothes I wear and see nothing odd about that. My husband, also an academic, has yet to hear a single student comment about his wardrobe, which I'll call "guy casual." Usually he wears khaki pants and a polo or button-down shirt. That's the same outfit he wears out to dinner or on a trip to the zoo with our children. If he tended to wear jeans, I suspect he would wear "all jeans, all the time," as Lang writes in his essay.

My point here is that "guy casual" is neutral: It says nothing more than "I'm a guy," and that's all it needs to say. There's a presumption of respect that comes along with being a guy -- specifically, a white male professor -- and that allows for a certain disregard where the question of classroom dress is concerned...There is, however, no neutral position for women. If I go "extreme casual," I'm making a statement eschewing the fashion industry and its hold on me. If I opt for a more formal style of dress, I'm making another sort of statement. In fact, Lang implies, I may be seen as trying too hard, of seeming absurdly authoritarian: He writes that female professors who are sharp dressers seem to wear things like scarves and pointy shoes to establish their authority with students. "The pointy shoes make me the boss," as he puts it.

But there's no presumption of respect or authority accorded to me when I walk into a classroom -- no matter what shoes I'm wearing. I have to convince my students, every day, that I know something about the subject matter and can manage the class effectively. I also have to convince them that they can't push me around, because they'll try to, but they won't try as hard if I've persuaded them that it will be a challenge.

Classroom dress does, then, help to identify the person who is in charge, and that's an important consideration when authority can't be presumed...

Female professors are supposed to know how to dress; it's part of the gender performance on which we're evaluated. Failing to dress well suggests an incompetence that might undermine a woman's authority in other areas. If she doesn't even know how to dress, the student thinks, how could she possibly know that this paper deserves a C?

Male professors aren't expected to have any fashion sense, so relying on that old standard, "guy casual," can't hurt them. Professor Lang goes so far as to say, "I wear the clothes my wife buys for me," suggesting that there's no need for him to think about his wardrobe at all, unless he chooses to.

I suspect he means that line to be facetious, but let's imagine a female professor saying the same thing, telling her colleagues or students, "I wear the clothes my husband buys for me." That professor is not only incompetent (she doesn't even know how to dress), but also submissive. There's no way she can garner the respect of her students or her peers.

A professor's choice of classroom dress is far more complex than Lang suggests. It has much more to do with gender, race, and cultural privilege than teaching style.

So, yes, we need our role models, if only to take a look at how they dress. Any decent man can teach us how to shim a 500 MHz spectrometer to achieve kick-ass narrow linewidths (well, maybe not ANY decent man. There is only one Bill Hull.) Any man, who is a decent human being, can teach us to do good science or good engineering. And thank god this is so, because there simply aren't enough women to go around. Not yet, anyway.

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I do not doubt that a female science/engineering role model can represent and teach things to female students that a man is unable to do. You listed several excellent examples. In this revision of your original comment you've softened your view of male role models, but you still seem to be saying that a man could be an excellent scientific educator, but only a woman can be a role model. Is there really nothing a female student can learn from a man on the proper conduct of research and interactions with others? Was there never a male teacher or researcher who treated you as a scientist and to whom you looked up?

And just for your information, I'm male and I cannot remember how any of my female science and engineering professors dressed. I have general memories of which professors (male and female) fit into the sharp vs. casual categories. I tend to notice sloppiness (not casual). I do remember one male prof who always wore a sports jacket, t-shirt, and pants. Each day, either the jacket or pants were wrinkled, but never both. It was quite an impressive feat.

On one end sit the sharp dressers

And on the other end, me (though I'm a postdoc not a professor). If nothing that I am wearing has holes in it, it's safe to assume I am on my way to a job interview or a nice restaurant. If, in addition, my shoes are clean and I am wearing my tie, I am on my way to an immigration interview.

I've always considered the freedom to dress with as little care as I like to be one of the unquantifiable perqs of a research career. I am *always* comfortable. Yet another "little extra" that women have to forgo, I guess.

I don't get what? That it's impossible for a female scientist to have a male role model? I understand that it is very difficult for a female scientist to succeed without practical and emotional support from female scientist role models, but that doesn't discount the possibility of lso having male role models. Do you disagree?

there you go again, changing the subject. the point is not to trash white males as it is to demand that there be more diversity in places of power so that all of us, not just white males, have role models who we can relate to. yes, i can relate to males as a male, but my brown skin is an experience which a white male can conceive of, but never "understand." similarly, the experience of a woman is something i can conceive of, but i will never "undertand" it, aside from the empathy of being one placed outside the rings of power by the virtue of my being who i am.

this isn't about creating a new power structure, you can't tear down the master's house with his tools, it is about revolutionizing and flattening the public space so all have access no matter their creed, gender or color.

First of all, you are assuming I am white. Second, I didn't change the subject. When did I ever state or even imply that there should be more diversity in places of power?

Constructive change is almost never radical or rapid. Yes there are many ways to increase diversity, but do you doubt that most science faculty will still be white males a decade from now? Therefore white males have an important part to play as both agents of change and, yes, role models. Role models both to white males showing how to be more welcoming and to others showing that otherness doesn't affect quality of science or respect. (I don't like your use of the word "other", but i'll keep using the term for lack of a better one

bsci, you present an perplexing problem, to me. The words you use above and over at 'Page 3.14' show that you do not understand "role model" the way Zuska hopes you will.

It is not that you are a dummy. It is that I know only to shout louder, when I need to learn to speak your language.

We need something like that famous 'Psychology Today' cover of the Black kid in the White room, and about a thousand thousand words, to explain "role model".

From the Oxford Dictionary: role model: A person looked to by others as an example to be imitated.

That's pretty close to my definition. I'd add that one's goal is not necessarily to imitate every aspect of a role model. For example, a female faculty member who consiously decided not to have children could be a role model to a female student who plans to have children. The student can want imitate much of the role model's examples, but can still differ on key topics. In the same way even if a male faculty member doesn't have to fight many of the battles of a female faculty member, parts of his path to success, research drive and ethics could be an example to be imitated.

In general, I'd say that in a quality mentor-student relationship, the mentor should be playing some aspect of a role model. Conversely, could a mentor-student relationship be healthy if the mentor is not at all a role model?

You know, I was thinking about making this response yesterday, but I figured someone would point this out. Silly me.

I can, of course, not speak for Zuska directly, but I can interpreter her words (and I'm sure she'll correct me if I botch it ;). And bsci, Zuska _doesn't say that women can't have male role models_. Heck, she implies there is a man she respects for his talents in the end of this post (Bill Hull), but the thrust of her argument is that male role models aren't enough. Look at what she says, and focuses on: "One of the things they can do is model for the person a particular way of being a particular kind of person in a particular field of endeavor." One of the things. This is the 'thing' that prompts the entire post: A female role model giving a female engineer/scientist a way of approaching not only their science, but their interaction with the world. See her second topic sentence: "There are, however, precious few models to choose from of how to "be" a woman in science or engineering." The fact that she is talking about this one important aspect, and not others (such as respecting and/or looking up to [insert scientist/engineer/male here]) is fairly evident. She is, instead, focusing on _the area of role models in which female scientists are lacking, specifically female role models._

Women can have male role models, and do so far more often than men have female role models in general. That does not mean that a male role model, no matter how good, will satisfy all the roles a model can model for a woman. And the situation which creates this death of female role models... is the situation Zuska tends to rail against, connecting it to the general theme of the blog.

"We need our female role models," as she says, is a basic summary of this post. Nowhere in that does it say, "No man can be a role model." Where'd the argument come from?


Mecha, I agree with you 100%, which is what I also said. People need role models in their own group to see how people can succeed with similar skills and challenges, but that is not required for all their role models.

I'm realizing part of the confusion here is that the quote in the linked interview that started this discussion was not included in the separate piece. Zuska said, " I'll just mention this statistic: 11 years of engineering higher education at three prestigious institutions. Three female professors for an engineering-related class the entire time. That's 0.3 role models per year."

My original question was asking whether she really meant that she had no male role models. A larger discussion could flip this question. Let's say I'm not so hypothetically a white male PhD scientist starting a career in academics. Beyond being a ethical and good scientist and teacher who treats everyone with the respect that they earn regardless of gender, skin color, religion, etc., is there anything else I should I do to be a role model to people who aren't white males?

One could make the simple argument that only a female scientist could be a 'full' role model for the role of... well, female scientist. A literalist would say that Zuska didn't have much choice but to say exactly what she said, evne if she could have said it better by inserting the word 'total' or 'full' in there. ;) But there I go interpreting again.

I believe that the only response to your flipped question of what can be done is this: you can only sympathize, not empathize. This applies here because someone who does not fit in a person's socio-normative group (different race/sexuality/religion) can be a role mode right up to the point where they mentally ask a question where a response would depend on that. As an example, 'How would a christian deal with having a daughter that has an abortion?' is not a question _directly_ answered by a non-christian person (or even a christian person, for some values of christian and person.) 'How would a female scientist deal with her results being stolen?' is not a question _directly_ answered by a non-female. They can sympathize, they can theorize, but they cannot _empathize_. The social connections, the historical oppressions, the total worldview... sometimes people are just outside, looking in, and there's not so much you can do about it.

As a link tangentially on that particular pithy phrase:


I'm not sure I like your distinction between role model and "full" role model. This is mainly because full role models are exceptionally rare no matter who you are. I've had many mentors and role models (male and female), but there is not a single one I'd consider a full role model (i.e. someone whose path I can and would like to completely follow). Sticking you the gender issue. A female student is interested in science specialty X. A sucessful female faculty member is in science specialty Y. The faculty member can be a major role model on how to balance a work-home life, how to deal with biases against women, etc., but she really can't model how to do good science in specialty X and she doesn't know the personalities and general dynamics in field X. A male professor is sucessful in specialty X. Both faculty members are role models and both provide vital help and guidance to this student, but neither would be full role models. Considering the current number of female faculty, I suspect this scenario is much more common than people finding full role models. Even if a full role model is better, this option also provide a clear path to future sucess.

Good point on the flipped question although I really hope there isn't much of a gender difference on how people should deal with results being stolen!

You don't need to like the distinctions and role models chosen by others. Quite the contrary. If they require your approval, they are not role models : they are propaganda.

A smart women will choose the role models *she* needs.

She will accept no substitutes chosen for the benefit and comfort of others.

A smart women will choose the role models *she* needs.

The question is, if a woman has no male role models, why? There are three possible reasons that I can see:

1) By mostly random chance, all the role models a women has found happen to also be women.

2) Something in many male scientists' upbringing or training makes most of them unsuitable as mentors for women.

3) The women considers "maleness" a negative attribute when looking for role models.

The first option is very reasonable and probably happens often. The second option is a real problem that is slowly getting better and can be fixed. The recent NAS report on women in science partially touches on this topic. The third option is also a problem since it is discrimination, but I suspect this option is much less common than the first two.

you can't tear down the master's house with his tools

You know, if you can get hold of 'em, you most certainly can. With enough women/brown people/"others" in positions of real power, the existing hierarchies can become a means of flattening the playing field rather than maintaining its slope.

Is it just me, or has affirmative action, at least in science, pretty much faded away? You always see "women and minorities encouraged, so-and-so is an EO employer" shibboleths on job ads, but what is actually happening at the level of hiring and firing? I've never been on a hiring committee in this country, but it's my sense that affirmative action has de facto ended, not with a bang but a whimper.

I don't have much time for this today: I'm struggling a proposal out. That said?

1) Too bad that you don't like the distinction, really, but it's a useful continum from 'single aspect role model' to 'full role model'. You could have a role model on bowling style that's a horiffic drunkard who beats their sigoth, and only focus on the bowling style (well, some people could), or you could have a role model that you want to model most aspects of your life after. Makes sense to me.

It is also not a hard statement at all to say, 'I don't like to model my life after someone with quality X _or without quality Y_.' I can never consider my father a full role model, because he happens to be at fundamental odds with my sexuality. Would you find it similarly -ist if rarely chose a role model who wasn't of a particular religious faith? Would you think, 'They value that religion?' or 'THEY HATE NON-RELIGIOUS HOW -IST?' The hate posture is your assumption of the meaning of your third reason, and that's a horrible thing, forcing people to submit to chance (1) or excuse-making (2) just to keep you from calling them sexist as you have done.

Also note that 2 and 3 can easily be intertwined when a man is both gender male and sex male. 'Maleness' as you refer to it is almost a gender construct, and I very rarely find it a thing to emulate, and I'm a _guy_. Am I now sexist? I mean, the literal non-gender meaning of your 3? 'The woman doesn't choose men as role models because they have penises.' Without gender, it's silly (sexist, but silly.) With gender, it's... very reasonable, and ties back into 2.

The idea that female role models are important for women is not a novel one, or a sexist one (unless all those role models have to stay barefoot in the kitchen.) In fact, their importance is clear to Zuska by implication (the fact that she brought it UP means she considers it, and the lack therof, very important.) The idea that they MUST have a male role model, or else they're either unlucky or sexist, is... frankly, weird. It's a _very_ weak indicator of sexism to not have a male role model, and would be overrided by _actual sexist behavior_, and furthermore this is very weakly relted to the original discussion in my mind. I further feel that one could flip the sex in this last paragraph (and the negative stereotype) and have it be just as valid.

2) After all that... why are we still on this strawman argument? Are you just exploring the topic space? This 'hypothetical' woman who won't choose role models strictly because they have penises no matter what other attributes they have... has yet to appear, and as such arguing 'against' her theoretical sexism doesn't seem productive.


I think we're agreeing on more than you realize. I fully agree that women need female role models and there are things that a man can never be a role model for.

I guess my issue with the "full" role model concept is that full role models are so rare that I almost consider them an unrealistic ideal. I have have many wonderful role models, but no one who I would remotely consider a full role model. My graduate mentor was definitely a role model on how to think about science and how to do good science, but, to you use example, I won't be imitating his drinking habits (his aren't unreasonable, but clearly more than anything I desire to do). Do you have anyone you consider a full role model?

As far as my three reasons. Refusing to consider someone a role model because of their gender IS sexist. (Flip the genders and you'd agree). Still, I tried to make clear that this is probably rare with the first two being the more realistic reasons doesn't have a male role model. I included the 3rd for completeness and not because I think it's common.

I also never said a woman must have a male role model. I did try to explore the reasons why this might occur. The first two are not judgemental at all and the 2nd one tries to point to areas of potential improvement for men.

I think I realize fairly well that there isn't much of an argument here, especially on the original issues, which is why I asked why this had to continue. Yes, they are not common, but here's the thing. Zuska was talking about never getting the chance. How would you feel if you rarely ever saw someone who was like you? You have lots of choices. Zuska had 0.3 a year. If she didn't like them as a middling to high correspondence role model? Oh well. Wait another 3 years. Pray you find a man who can fill this hole, because no women for you. So yes. The _opportunity_ for full role models is important, even if they don't happen. Very. Very. Very. Important.

To clarify something you seem to have... way off. Gender isn't Sex. I use those terms very specifically. Gender is mental and social, sex is pure genetic form. And no, I wouldn't, in fact, agree. I mean, it's great to imply I would, but... no, I wouldn't. Not wanting a person as a role model because they fit the socionormative concept of 'being a real man' is exactly how I feel. That is not a model for me. I do not want that role model _because they have the gender concept of maleness_. That is not sexism, bsci. That is _me not wanting to take on that role_. Now we are clear. Gender versus sex is very central to my life.

I find your list of reasons over-simplifying. Or perhaps under. Here are the reasons you do not choose someone as a role model. Here is why a woman might not have a male role model.

1) You do not find enough aspects of them which you particularly wish to model your life after to outweigh their ordinaryness, non-matching traits, or general negative traits and reaction to you.

That's it. If you're sexist, you'll be sexist. If you're not, you'll be not. The 'sexism' thing is a non-starter in this discussion, and has nothing to do with Zuska's original post, or any of the opinions of anyone who followed. Your three reasons don't change any of that, or help us approach it in any real way, in my mind.

Your reasons bother me in other ways I am having trouble phrasing, so I'll just stop here with this: Role models are about choice. Zuska protested a lack of choice. I protest a lack of choice. Your reasons deny that choice, simplifying it into chance and sexism. Everyone, male and female, can choose who they want to be their role models, without having to justify every single one or else be called sexist. This is only possible if they're remotely available. Which is where Zuska started, and where I will end.


Chiming in; I have had male support and encouragement. I have had men teach me fabulous things.
I think that I'll reframe the discussion, with everyone's tolerance; away from "role models", and into the realm of advertising.

When I got a poor result, I had an implicit association with males and science that would trip me up. A brand - what a scientist looked like. Men surrounded me. I would have to be an idiot not to notice that: and our subconcious minds do create a template. Men were branded "Coke", and I was "RC Cola".
It always haunted me, a nightmare hidden in the back of my mind, that the Dean of Harvard was right: That ovaries preclude phenomenal scientific ability or interest. Or worse, even, for a person of ideas and creative interest: that women might be technicians, but never real scientists.
A man cannot easily help me defeat that: whereas a brilliant woman by example can.

So, no, in that sense a man cannot be an example of "my brand" by sheer presence, whereas a woman - just by owning similar genitalia - can be. If that brand is a role model, than men can't do that. That's a role - brand recognition - that is incredibly useful. A man (especially of certain ethnic backgrounds), has lots of examples of brilliant men of his race in our Western tradition to draw from if he gets a bad result. He would be an idiot to wonder if he was disabled by his gender or race because the pantheon is made up of people who have the same makeup. A man of other ethnicities or women generally have fewer examples. I had Ada Lovelace, and Grace whats-her-face Hopper, and what? Marie Curie? It is not extensive market penetration.

That said, and it has been men who have helped me get over some of my concerns. They have not done so through re-branding. Mainly they've been in industry, and mainly they've shown their respect of my work by being willing to pay me well and review me well and pester me with contracts. I am perfectly aware, now, that in the world of Software Engineers I'm someone who is extremely valuable. Top of my game, as it were.

Even still: I have not been Einstein. This is certainly because there aren't that many Einsteins; but also I stopped working in places where I could have been revolutionary - I didn't pursue my PhD (thesis ready to go nonetheless), because I really couldn't hack the system anymore.

I certainly once had dreams.

"Refusing to consider someone a role model because of their gender IS sexist."

Do you imply that it is naughty?