Posted on April 28, 2017 by staff

The importance of having terrible role models


When I was younger my role models were cartoon space hare Bucky O’Hare, my grumpy teenage stepbrother and all five members of the Spice Girls.

Possibly not the most realistic things to aim for.

But, no matter how cartoonish or cranky your role models are, it’s important to have them.

It’s equally important though to have terrible ones – as I found out at the Empowering Women with Tech conference on Wednesday.

This might seem like the opposite of what a conference trying to empower women would set out to achieve, but there is an undeniable method to the madness.

The conference itself was part of the Leeds International Festival, which is in its inaugural year.

The tech strand was – impressively – pulled together in a matter of months. Even more impressively, 67 per cent of the speakers in the festival’s tech talks were female.

Many of these were speaking at the conference on Wednesday, and they’re all fantastic role models for any man or woman considering joining the industry.

There was the incredible Sue Black OBE – who went from a mum of three on benefits to a tech campaigner and social entrepreneur –  and Warner Music’s VP of Digital Emmy Lovell, who got her first job in the industry by sending out a ‘bolshy’ letter to major music companies saying they ‘had to have her’.

It worked.

The headline speaker was Lauren Laverne of BBC Radio 6 Music fame, who co-founded The Pool – an online platform for women ‘too busy to browse’; which, let’s face it, is pretty much everyone.

Lauren talked about the importance of having ‘terrible’ role models as well as great ones.

Her point was that if all of your role models are incredible high flyers then you’re always going to feel inadequate.

“When I’m nervous about something I’ve got to do – professionally or personally – I think ‘who’s the worst person who’s managed this?’

“If you think ‘I’ve got to become Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’ that’s quite a tough brief. But if you think about some people who’ve just muddled through suddenly things seem a bit more possible.

“We shouldn’t hold ourselves to impossible standards that only three people in the universe can meet. We should ask ‘what’s good enough, what’s the best I can do?’ And maybe that’s OK.

“So give things a go, because if you aim for that you might land further on than you imagine.”

The festival will hopefully help women thinking of entering the industry to do just that – give tech a go by showing that it’s possible to succeed no matter what their gender, background or industry.

It’s equally important to have role models of the opposite gender too. In light of this it was, in some ways, a shame that only about five out of three hundred audience members and one of the eight speakers at the conference were male.

There is a danger of shutting men out of the conversation but ultimately it’s still early days for women in tech and there do need to be at least some events aimed mostly at them.

So it looks like Lauren Laverne was right – make sure you have a real mix of role models, whether they’re male, female, or just plain terrible.