Time to retire tired old role models?

The main people who currently inspire British workers are either dead or approaching retirement, from foreign shores and almost exclusively male according to a new study into role models launched today. The research, conducted with 1,700 workers by CMI has prompted calls for a new generation of younger, home-grown and female role models to be highlighted in an effort to encourage and inspire women to aim for leadership roles.

Nelson Mandela and Richard Branson topped the list of inspirational figures in the public eye, which also features Steve Jobs, John Harvey-Jones, and Tony Blair. Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa were the only women named within the top 10 role models.

Ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow, new CMI research on ‘The Power of Role Models’ shows women are still much less likely than men to aspire to top jobs. Twice as many men as women are aiming for CEO posts in the immediate future (7.1% compared to 4.0% aspire to be chief executive in two years’ time) and, looking ahead to 2025, just a quarter of women want to be in board-level positions, compared to over a third of men (38%).

CMI’s study suggests outdated, patriarchal stereotypes still held by some men may be in part to blame. Women polled were 22% more likely to disagree that males make better role models than females while men were 8% more likely to think being physically attractive is an important trait for a role model to have. When it comes to their careers, men are three times as likely to be influenced by their dads as their mums (13% compared to 5%), while women look equally to both parents (12% to mums and 10% to dads).

Ann Francke, Chief Executive of CMI, said: “We need a role model revolution. It’s time to redefine and rejuvenate what we think of as an inspiring person. While many of those named in the top 10 have achieved amazing things in their lifetimes, they aren’t necessarily relevant role models who can inspire workers on a practical level in their everyday lives. Shouldn’t we be looking to today’s business leaders like Charlie Mayfield and Richard Reed over John Harvey-Jones? And where are female role models such as Karren Brady and Martha Lane Fox?

“Without accessible, inspiring women highlighted in the public eye, it’s no surprise we’re lacking a pipeline of talented women aiming for top jobs. Women are opting not to go for these roles because they’re put off by business cultures, and wider social attitudes, that are still predominantly geared to making men successful but alienate women. If men in our workplaces are inherently biased towards taking their lead from the men in their lives rather than the women, it’s unlikely they’re championing and nurturing their female and male employees equally.”

Francke is also a board member of the Women of Influence initiative which supports female scientists. She adds: “The lack of role models is a critical issue in so many sectors. Along with several other leading businesswomen, I’m pleased to be involved in a great programme to support and mentor female scientists to help them reach leading positions in their careers, part of Cancer Research UK’s Women of Influence initiative. It would be fantastic to see schemes like this equipping more women to achieve their potential in other industries.”

Minister for Women and Equalities Jenny Willott MP, said: “The results of CMI’s survey shine a spotlight on the lack of female role models.  Yet we know there are exceptional women out there whose achievements and approach to life could help guide other women to realise their full potential.
“We should be encouraging more women to become role models by sharing lessons about how they got where they are and how other women can succeed in the workplace. We want more inclusive workplaces where women are encouraged and supported to achieve the very best they can - this work is crucial if we are to build a stronger economy and a fairer society.”

Looking beyond role models in the public eye, the study reveals a lack of inspiring leaders in our workplaces too, with just a third of people (34%) saying their line manager sets a good example and barely half (56%) being able to identify a good role model in their wider organisation.

Ann continues: “We know that good line management is key to engaging employees and improving business performance. If just one in three people think their boss is a good role model, then UK businesses will struggle to make the most of opportunities created by the improving economy – and will fail to inspire talented employees to aspire to senior roles.”

The research was launched at a CMI event to celebrate International Women’s Day hosted by Citi. Carolanne Minashi, Head of Diversity and Employee relations for Europe Middle East and Africa at Citi, said:

“Seeing successful women at the top of organisations, leading all sorts of business across sectors and industries normalises female leadership for everybody.  From the young girl at school, to the new graduate, to the aspiring middle Manager – a balance of genders in senior leadership will move the debate from focusing on female leaders as a rarity to a debate about how to develop and motivate great leadership talent.”

The event investigated how business cultures can be challenged to build greater diversity and inclusion, with key note speakers Sue O’Brien OBE, CEO, Norman Broadbent and Member of the Women’s Business Council, and Jenny Willott MP, Women and Equalities Minister.  An expert panel shared their insights including in James Bardrick, Citi Country Officer, Vice Chairman Corporate & Investment Banking; Helen Fraser, CEO, Girls Day School Trust; Kim Winser OBE, Founder, Winser London, former CEO of Pringle and Aquascutum; Victoria Sanz-Moreno, Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellow, Kings College; and Rebecca Taylor, Dean, Open University Business School.