For all the talk around female leadership and the importance of diversity in the boardroom, I never really gave much thought to being a woman executive, as opposed to just being an executive, until my daughter entered high school.
I had grown used to being the only woman in the room. In my male-dominated industry it wasn't that uncommon. When my daughter entered her teen years, however, the often easy-to-glaze-over effects of gender disparity started to surface as I watched through a new lens — the keen focus of a mother. Self-expectation became my daughter's enemy. I watched with empathy as she beat herself up for not acing a test or took a back seat in activities that she hadn't quite perfected yet.
My son didn't suffer from the same sense of pressure. He was proud of whatever marks he achieved and was fearless in trying new things. It became clear that the culture my kids were growing up in had different standards for boys and girls. And I started to realize how important my role as a female executive was in educating my children on leadership.
I, like many other career moms, have suffered from the guilt of being away from my kids. Which is why it's gratifying to know research now shows working moms are inspiring a new generation of young leaders — particularly amongst girls. A recent study by Gender Initiative, on behalf of Harvard Business School, found moms who lead in the workplace teach their daughters a specific set of skills that grant a higher chance of success in their careers. This phenomenon has been dubbed "the Role Model Effect."
I want to show my daughter that tackling big challenges without first being perfect is an empowering thing.
What is the 'Role Model Effect,' exactly?
Described as "a social development concept in psychology where attitudes, feelings, beliefs and emotions are instilled in someone by watching how others react," the role model effect is a byproduct of conditioning. In its simplest form, it's the effect women leaders have on younger generations.
Leading through vulnerabilities
What I've learned from my direct experience along with insights from other women in leadership roles, is the importance of keeping authentic, vulnerable representations of leadership available so that young women and men know they can achieve what their role models have. It's hard to be the first in a position of prominence. You are asked to represent all people in your category — be that gender, race or other identity — and your very presence can be used as an excuse to maintain the status quo or to propel more diversity.
A final take-away
By placing female leaders on a pedestal as "role models" we sometimes inadvertently make our achievements seem unattainable for others. We become the exception, not the rule, and that's not the example I wanted to set for either of my children. I want to show my daughter that tackling big challenges without first being perfect is an empowering thing. I want my son to know firsthand that leadership comes in all forms and there are many paths available to him, including the honourable one his father has taken as a stay-at-home dad. For those who grow up in a household with strong leadership examples, this is easy. The challenge is making it easy for all girls and boys who may not have this in their homes.
While women often struggle with the many roles they lead in, the reality is that for many working moms career and motherhood intertwine. I found that my role as a mother had a positive impact on my leadership style at work. Likewise, the lessons I learn in the boardroom play into the example I set for my children and can have a lasting impact on their perception of self and future ambitions.
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