'What makes a good or bad female role model?'

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column answering your questions on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. Send your dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand. 

This week's question:

"There's so much chat about role models these days. Why does feminism need them, and what defines the good from the bad?"

Feminist Caroline Criado-Perez says:

Women make up 51% of the world’s population. But to look at the way we represent that world, you wouldn’t think it.

Only one out of ten political news stories in the UK feature women as the main subject, and only 13% of global news stories do. Women make up only 20% of experts in the media, but 80% of pictures considered relevant to the news story. In other words, only there for decoration. And in perhaps the least defensible figure of all, women make up only 28% of speaking roles in Hollywood films

This lack of representation matters beyond the obvious point that a world that is made up of 51% women should not be consistently representing itself as between 70-80% male. It matters because of the well-documented impact that role models can have on women. 

Women have been shown to be affected by a phenomenon called “stereotype threat”. This is where women will do worse in a field in which they are stereotypically thought to be weak. Something as simple as ticking a box to declare your gender before taking a maths test has been shown to negatively affect women’s performance in the test. But it’s not all bad news, because there is a very simple remedy to this unfair disadvantage: providing women with role models.

In one Harvard study, two groups were given a maths test, one by a woman presented as incompetent in maths and one by a woman presented as competent in maths. The latter group did much better. In another US study, the presence of a single female senator or candidate for the Senate raised women’s ability to name a senator to 79%, in comparison with 51% in states where there was no female senator or candidate. And in a Swiss study, just placing a picture of either Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel at the back of a room when women were delivering a speech was found to enable the women to give better (judged by both themselves and the audience) speeches, and to speak for longer

By routinely representing women as a minority, accounting for little more than 20% of the world’s population, it is clear that we are doing women a disservice. Role models clearly affect women in quite dramatic and tangible ways. And yet we continue to deny women access to the stories of inspiring and pioneering women. These women are out there, we are just ignoring them. It’s time to change that. 

As far as good female role models are concerned, Nicola Sturgeon comes to mind. The first female First Minister of Scotland has made it clear that she intends to use her premiership to further the equality of other women. She has spoken about the need for quotas, pointing out that if we had a meritocracy we would already have gender parity. She has appointed a gender balanced cabinet, extended childcare, and said that if she left office “without having helped make a difference for other women then that would be a failure”. Go Nicola.

Mary Beard is another great role model. Everyone’s favourite classicist, Beard has taken a pummelling from internet trolls and from TV critics who should know better. She has remained calm but firm, refusing to change either the way she looks or the way she engages to placate a sexist society. She has simply and unapologetically carried on being a public intellectual, and one of the cleverest women in the country.

And many women’s mothers are role models to them, but I think mine can be a role model to other women too. Unhappily divorced in her 50s, she reinvented herself as an aid worker with Médecins Sans Frontières , refusing to accept that her life must be over since the children had left and the wrinkles had arrived. She has shown me that life is full of second chances, so long as you are brave enough to grasp them.

There are only really two ways a woman can be a bad role model. The most common is denigrating other women. It’s an easy trap to fall into: in a world that says that everything that is connected to women is trivial, lesser, an understandable reaction is to reject one’s femaleness.

It’s easier to pretend you’re “not like other women”, than to challenge a sexist world and make it recognise that no woman is like the two dimensional stereotype our culture has created. But while we live in that world, while we prop it up by merely distancing ourselves personally from the demeaning stereotype rather than demolishing it, no woman will ever be truly free.

And the second way women can be bad role models is by refusing to support each other and celebrate our successes as progress for women as a class. Women are taught to be in competition with each other for the tiny space we’re allowed in public life, rather than to challenge men for our fair share.

It’s therefore easier to try to knock women who have “made it” off their top perch, rather than support them and try to create more space for us all. Similarly, it’s easier to pull the ladder up behind you, than to reach a hand down to help other women up.

But while women attack each other rather than a culture that positions us as a second class minority, we will never achieve equality.

We want to hear your thoughts! Do you agree with Caroline that female role models are a crucial to inspiring the progress and visibility of women in a man's world? What you think makes a good or bad role model? Scroll down to join the debate in the comments section, below. 


Caroline Criado-Perez’s first book Do It Like A Woman: … And Change the World (Portobello Books) is out on 14 May. As part of the release Caroline and notable feminists are taking part in the #DoItLikeAWoman social media campaign, sharing images and thoughts on their own female role models. See more here.  

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