Female Role Models: You can’t be what you can’t see

By - Thursday 30th May, 2013

Ahead of tonight’s ‘Women in Tech’ Croydon Tech City event at Matthew’s Yard, dotMailer marketer Luella Ben Aziza shares her difficult search for a female STEM role model


Marie Curie, the original STEM role model.

Growing up, I always wanted to do cool stuff like Bill Gates, David Attenborough, or Robert Winston did. I cannot think of any females I aspired to be like, let alone a female STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths) role model. It never occurred to me that I was lacking a female role model until a lady joined the board of directors at a company I worked at.

If, when I was choosing my career path at school, I’d been conscious of the fact that the FTSE 100 had (and indeed still has) a paltry number of female CEOs, I’d have seen it as a challenge – an opportunity. I didn’t know. Instead, the gender issue has become an a bit of a bane.

In junior roles, gender is rarely an issue. But as I climb up the career ladder, new gender-related challenges have been presented:

  • You begin to manage others – subordinates and your own managers, male and female.
  • You have to deal with more and more senior people – which means more testosterone-fuelled situations where you are the only woman in a group of many (often older) males.
  • Your views on female issues like maternity leave and relationships in the workplace are challenged. On one hand, you care more about the company getting value from employees. On the other, you’ve had more life experience, and feel more empathy for certain predicaments.
  • As people begin to ask you almost weekly when you plan to have children, you begin to wonder not if your career will stall, but when. Not ‘will I have to make sacrifices?’, but ‘what will I choose to sacrifice?’
  • Your ‘everything you’ve worked for’ is progressively sacred, so you start to feel a little resentful of those who’ve achieved what you’re working towards, and then ‘ditched’ it for babies.
  • Office politics become more sophisticated and important. As a result, gender plays a bigger role.

These are the kind of situations where female role models could have been valuable. So I could see first-hand how others have successfully handled the challenges I faced. Of course, there are many well-known successful women in other sectors, but there aren’t enough women celebrated in science and technology. And a role model needs to feel real, and relevant.

Let’s keep the spotlight shining on women that are successful with their clothes on

So, where do role models come from?

I’m sure there are more STEM ladies and astute businesswomen out there that young ladies could aspire to, but most media seem more focused on their acquisitions of husbands and handbags than businesses. Unless this changes, our smart sisters will remain in the shadows.

The progressive people of London’s tech scene have the potential to move things forward as they influence the makeup of incredibly fast-growing businesses that will produce the next generation’s role models.

Let’s keep the spotlight shining on women that are successful with their clothes on and let’s learn from the amazing things they do. Maybe then we’ll hear boys aspiring to the qualities of female role models as well as women aspiring to the qualities of male role models. Inspiration should be about the brain, not the body.

Come join in on the discussion. Croydon Tech City will be holding a ‘Women in Tech’ event tonight (Thursday 30th May) at 7:30pm at Matthews Yard, Croydon.

Luella Ben Aziza

Marketer for Croydon-based tech company, dotMailer, with a focus on content and social media. CPFC fan, passionate about London, technology and business. Maybe too curious.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.sheppardjones Liz Sheppard-Jones

    I agree with this, obviously. I’ve no experience of STEM career progression but in all careers there comes a point at which women wake up to the fact that the equality we have assumed in our 20s has been a trick. We have decisions to make, dilemmas to resolve and balances to strike, which our male peers do not. The glass ceiling is very real and senior female role models are important.
    I think you are over-egging it, though. It’s been a long time since the glossies, or the media in general, focussed more on the acquisition of husbands and handbags than on careers. For sure they over-emphasise handbags, but for a long time now the message has been ‘buy your own bling, sisters – then it’s yours forever’. Excellent progress! And whole professions – medicine is a fine example of a science-y one – are increasingly feminised.
    Your point about resenting those who have ‘ditched it all for babies’ is a vital one. (Not many do that, by the way – lots of us just try to become superwoman). This resentment is the key to understanding why women are so poisonously divided by the career/family balance choices they make and why we slate each other so viciously over them. The best of luck to the progressive people of London’s tech scene in changing all THAT.