THE BLOG

Put On Your Ray-Bans and Stitch Your Patchwork Quilt Models

19/09/2014 12:40 BST | Updated 18/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Wonderwoman! Oh man, how I wished I could have been her: strong, clever, beautiful. That red, blue and gold superhero outfit with the amazing boots.......swoon. And that sound track! Sing it and feel the power, go on, give it a go........Wonderwoman, all the world is waiting for you, and the power you possess...... She was one of the first people I dreamed of being "like".

Whether it was the early days of "butter wouldn't melt in my mouth" lace trimmed high collared blouses, "Duck's Ass" hair flicks glued in place with superhold hairspray - Gen Xers/Baby boomers don't pretend you weren't sucked in - or some years later as she walked through minefields in Tods and cuddled HIV babies, Princess Diana touched my world. Whether I wanted to be like her or not was irrelevant, I couldn't escape the influence she had on the world and the women in it.

Then a 180° turn.....knee length black leggings under a short rah-rah skirt, loads of rubber bracelets, fingerless lace gloves actually anything lacy, gothic crucifix around my neck, black scarf tied into shaggy cockscrew home perm. Stacks of black eyeliner, just like a virgin.

I'll spare you the influences of my late teens - suffice to say that scary haircuts, Dr Martins and battered biker jacket were de rigueur..........and no I don't have any photos.

Wonderwoman, Princess Diana, Madonna. They provided inspiration, ideas, visions from which to pluck, mould and reshape, to create my own look, my own aura, my own presentation of myself to the world.

As I grew older inspiration came less from specific icons and more from women I saw on the street, women in my circle of acquaintances and closer circle of friends, and women in the media. These days it may even be from a TV series (Olivia Pope of Scandal being an excellent source of poise and wardrobe envy - even if the storyline has gone off kilter).

Be a role model secret agent. Stealthily observe others from behind black Ray-Ban Wayfarers (or whatever shades are your flavour of the month). Descreetly source inspiration for clothes, shoes, bags, how to walk, how to hold yourself, how to talk, what to say....the list goes on.

When it comes to our appearance we've all done it........we find inspiration someplace, somewhere. We think "mmmm I'd like to look like that" or "mmmmm I'd like to sound like that". Some things work, some fail (sometimes abysmally - yes we've all been there). Some things stick, some things fall away.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating being a carbon copy of someone else, or trying to be someone that you're not. We must know, accept and love ourselves blah blah blah - you know all about that. All I'm saying is why not draw inspiration from others to improve or experiment with what we've already got - and have some fun with it.

I know I'm not the only woman who has and still does this. In fact I think women are incredibly apt at this skill - drawing from her surroundings to adapt and grow.

So why, oh why, do we struggle with transferring this skill to the workplace.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about leadership role models.

We know that we need more women role models if we want to see more women leaders."You can't be what you can't see" says Marie Wilson founder and president of the White House Project.

In a recent study, blur Group surveyed more than 1000 national and international entrepreneurs about the top business people that inspire them the most.  Almost 10% of those surveyed were women. But when it came time to cast a ballot for the top entrepreneurs, women didn't even receive 3% of the vote. Read more.

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But what does that mean - and what can we do about it? Smells like "vicious circle" to me.

Herminia Ibarra, professor of leadership and organizational behaviour at INSEAD, and one of the Havard Business Reviews top 50 Management Gurus, has done some work on Role Models. She discovered that while women tend to look for one individual who captures all the facets they are looking for in a role model, men tend to create patchwork quilt role models. Actually she uses the term Selective Imitation, but I kind of like the image of a patchwork quilt model (a bit like the "comfort fabric conditioner" ads in the UK). They take bits and pieces of various people they admire, putting them together to create their very own custom made role model (if you look close enough you might even spot their initials embroidered somewhere).

Elizabeth Kelan of King's College uses the term composite role models. In her book Rising Stars she tells us how millennial women tend to be more critical of role models than men. Women look for "ideal" role models: holistic people with jobs and lives, families and interests. Men seem to be more forgiving looking for role models who they "admire", focusing on professional achievements, rather than the whole person. Of course no one person embodies perfection (although I know a few people who would contest that) just as no one person embodies the "ideal" role model.

Kelan goes on to suggest why many Millennial women struggle to identify with female role models........................Unconscious Bias, the root of all causes.

Ask yourselves what do leaders look like? (I won't dignify this question with an answer. If you really don't know, go and read my other blog.)

Like it or not aspiring leaders still model themselves on this vision. Clearly women do not fit the stereotype. By the mere fact of being a women, senior women simply don't fit the mould.

And guess what? Millennial women do not live in a vacuum. They can't help but pick up on these stereotype signals, inevitably seeing women leaders as riskier role models than men.

Ah, here's one more interesting titbit for you. Kelan also found that women cited male and female role models, while men exclusively cited male role models. Now that's a can of worms waiting to be opened.

OMG the odds are stacked against us! Add a scarcity of women leaders to the mix and what have you got? No hope?

Rubbish!! Lets create our own hope!

Lets create our very own personal, custom made, unique, patchwork role models. Lets be pioneers. Lets combine XY and XX genes. Lets look for women and men whose leadership style we admire, whose way of talking compels us, whose way of working intrigues us. Lets look for women who successfully combine womanhood with assertiveness, who keep their femininity intact without loosing their teeth. Lets look for men that successfully combine their manhood with nurturing, who keep their masculinity intact without loosing their collaborative spirit.

You don't have to like everything about them, just take the piece you like. These men and women are to be honoured and congratulated as they pave the way for new styles of leadership for everyone.