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Role Model Behavior

Women executives often get taken to task unfairly for making personal and career choices.

In September, when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced she was pregnant with twin girls, she said she planned to follow roughly the same course as she had after the delivery of her son in 2012: “taking limited time off and working throughout.” Even though Yahoo, under her leadership, had recently revamped its maternity and paternity leave and benefits policies to be far more generous for employees, including eight weeks of paid leave for both new mothers and new fathers, the CEO declined to take advantage of these changes herself.

Predictably, the announcement inspired a lot of hand-wringing about her failure to serve as a good role model. Calling Mayer’s decision “disappointing,” Anne Weisberg, senior vice president at the Families and Work Institute in New York, declared, “She’s a role model and I think she should take whatever Yahoo’s parental leave is.” Weisberg added that the way in which corporate leaders handle the issue of parental leave is “hugely symbolic,” not only for their own employees but “for women everywhere.” She concluded: “It’s not just a personal choice.”

But of course it is a personal choice. These and other comments bring to mind past laments about senior women who had supposedly failed in their duty to serve as role models by opting to make personal decisions based on their own assessment of what was most important in their lives. This persistent meme first got going in the mid-90s, as a tiny number of women began ascending into highly visible senior corporate positions. When Brenda Barnes in 1997 resigned as president and CEO of Pepsi-Cola North America in order to spend more time with her family, the decision was exhaustively scrutinized for the “message” it might send, both to other women and to employers. Barnes was castigated by some for failing to serve as a role model for women who aspired to leadership positions, and applauded by others for serving as a role model for women who had accepted the ostensible futility of imagining they could “have it all.” That Barnes had a right to make her choice based on personal considerations seemed to play no role in either narrative. (Barnes would return to the corporate world in 1999, and served as CEO of Sara Lee from 2005 to 2010, when she suffered a stroke.)

Not only do women routinely come in for criticism as failed role models because of highly public work-life balance decisions, but they also reap opprobrium for failing in this regard for problems that lie well outside the work-life scope. When Martha Stewart, the home entertainment doyenne turned media mogul, was indicted for insider trading in 2003, and subsequently served time in federal prison, it set off a cascade of soul-searching about whether her failure to be a role model might actually put other women’s achievements in jeopardy. Is the progress women have made in the last 50 years really so fragile as to be put at risk by Martha Stewart’s brief lapse into spectacularly bad judgment about personal investments? Nobody, of course, would think to extrapolate the behavior of one male corporate executive to his entire gender.

In my experience, women are highly resilient and generally clear-eyed about the need to calculate trade-offs, and they do a pretty effective job of making choices that support their individual goals. This is not to say that we don’t benefit from having role models whose accomplishments, comportment, or demeanor inspire us. But it doesn’t mean that we slavishly copy them or make all our decisions based on theirs, as adolescents do when trying on adulthood.

Role models are especially important for women who aspire to leadership positions because they demonstrate that such aspirations are possible.

That’s the takeaway from the realistic but moving tribute Erica Dhawan, chief executive officer of consulting firm Cotential, gave Erin Callan, who rose to the position of chief financial officer at Lehman Brothers and was regarded as a high-profile success story before the firm blew up. Dhawan admired Callan and took inspiration from her visibility, success, and buoyant brand of female confidence. She defended Callan fiercely when the firm managed to shift some of the blame for its epically bad calls on her. But Dhawan did not conclude that Callan’s public ouster meant that she herself was doomed to fail, or that women couldn’t succeed in investment banking, or that Callan had somehow failed her and other women. She learned from Callan but didn’t model her life on hers.

The role model pushback that Marissa Mayer faced in 2015 is disturbing for two reasons. It presumes, incorrectly, that women can only see a path forward if someone else models it for them in every particular. And it assumes, also incorrectly, that women owe it to one another to make choices that somehow serve the best interests of all other women. Being successful at a demanding job while trying to maintain a rewarding personal and family life is tough enough for anyone — of any gender — in our 24/7 work culture. Asking women to also calculate their career choices based on their potential impact upon all other women seems an unreasonably heavy burden. Perhaps most perniciously, it can also have the effect of compounding the guilt that women are already too likely to feel.

Asking women to also calculate their career choices based on their potential impact upon all other women seems an unreasonably heavy burden.

In my work, I constantly encounter women who feel guilty for not leading “balanced” lives –– even though today’s workplaces often make doing so nearly impossible. I talk to women who feel guilty for working too hard because it takes them away from their families. I talk to women who feel guilty about spending time with their families because it takes them away from work. And I talk to women who manage to feel guilty on both accounts. Do we really want to also shame them for failing to serve as proper role models?

Several years ago, I participated in a large conference at which a successful female executive on one of the panels railed against a younger woman whose company had paid to put her through Harvard Business School. Two years after earning her MBA, the younger woman left her company to take a few years off. “How dare she take up a perfectly good space at Harvard Business School?” the woman on the panel demanded. “What kind of message does that send to the next woman who wants to go? Will the company even be willing to send another woman?” In other words, she viewed the woman who attended HBS as having an obligation to stay with her company even if she didn’t want to, in order to justify its investment and (possibly) make things easier for other women.

Such controversies are particularly insidious in an environment saturated by social media, one in which people feel free to weigh in, publicly, loudly, and snarkily, about one another’s lives. But the personal is not always political. Sometimes it’s strictly personal, and nobody else’s business. Recognizing this would serve us all well.

Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is the author of seven books on leadership, most recently How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, coauthored with Marshall Goldsmith. She delivers workshops and keynote addresses around the world and has been a contributor to s+b since 2005. 

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