2 February 2018 Issue 21 Feb/Mar

Leader: The power of the role model

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

The truly awful revelations about what it is to be a woman at work continue to roll in.

More offices, film sets, sports teams and fashion studios are routinely being outed for their toxic cultures of harassment and prejudice.

For men, the extent and severity of accusations have been a wake-up call; for women, they’ve confirmed a depressing reality.

As we reveal in our cover story (page 23), the startup world isn’t exempt. Tech in particular has a problem with gender balance – and possibly worse. Men dominate funding and senior positions. It’s fair to say startup looks and feels like a boys’ club; not only is it instinctive to recruit in one’s own image, but it is also more natural to be inspired by and follow in the footsteps of people who were once you.

Lacking inspiration

Apart from biases in hiring and securing investment is the issue of access to opportunity and individual progression, which goes far beyond gender. A lack of role models exist, not just for women hoping to launch businesses but for a range of other under-represented groups; those who are LGBTQ, from certain ethnic or economic backgrounds or even from beyond southeast England.

There is no evidence that white, brash males make better business leaders than any other demographic. But people do reward those in their own image with jobs and money – and when 89% of FTSE CEOs are white and male, it’s no wonder the cycle persists.

This matters for a number of reasons. The big one is economic prosperity. Talent which could be unleashed isn’t realising its potential. Products, companies, sectors and the economy at large are smaller and blander without diversity of people and ideas.

One McKinsey study found that diverse teams make better business decisions, performing 35% better when ethnically-diverse, and 15% better when gender-diverse.

The power role models have to encourage people to create and grow large businesses is hard to underestimate. Role models can change beliefs, behaviours and perceptions. The absence of strong and varied role models can often hold people back just as much as any structural bias or prejudice.

Parental determinant

Let’s look at the evidence. The most obvious role model is a parent. A wide-ranging Swedish study in 2012 concluded ‘parental entrepreneurship is a strong – probably the strongest – determinant of own entrepreneurship’.

The research found that a person was 60% more likely to start a business if their parent had done the same. Even adopted children were twice as likely to be entrepreneurial if their adoptive parents were business founders, regardless of whether or not their biological parents were. It suggests nurture rather than nature is the decisive factor.

Plurality of identities

Seeing a successful person who looks like, acts like or has skills in common with oneself has a transformative effect on confidence and aspirations. Lu Li, founder of women’s network Blooming Founders who’s interviewed as part of our cover story, says with brutal clarity: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’

Successful female role models can reset social perceptions in a richer and more far-reaching way than any well-intentioned public messages or anti-prejudice initiatives.

Of course, success can still be achieved without a mirror image of oneself. But a plurality of entrepreneurial identities is lacking, and that undoubtedly affects individuals’ career choices and confidence. When success often hinges on small margins, seeing what’s possible can be the deciding factor that encourages a would-be founder to battle through self-doubt, believe certain skills can be attained and find courage to pursue goals.

Sending the elevator back down

Many women business leaders feel ambivalent about being foisted into the status of ‘female role model’, preferring instead to be defined purely by their work and values (like their male peers), rather than their gender. It’s understandable why many don’t want to be put on a pedestal.

‘I don’t like being held up as this person who’s incredibly successful, because I’m still learning,’ says our cover star Sharmadean Reid. ‘The responsibility I feel is to showcase how hard it is, and share the knowledge and information I’ve acquired.’

Nevertheless, there’s a compelling argument that it’s incumbent on successful women or people from minority groups to ‘send the elevator back down’. Carrying the responsibility of being a role model might not be sought after – or fair – but almost anyone who has achieved something owes at least some inspiration to someone they once admired.

Starling Bank is one of London’s most captivating modern businesses. Its founder is Anne Boden, a middle-aged woman far from the caricature of a tech startup founder. She says: ‘When people see me – a former banking executive, female CEO, ex-engineer – having a successful new digital startup, I hope it gives inspiration to other people [to think that could be me].’