Ahead of International Women’s Day, InHerSight surveyed more than 2,000 women about the importance of gender representation and women role models in the workplace. Amid a workforce-revolutionizing pandemic that has seen nearly 3 million women drop out of the workforce in order to better support their families, the question of how much it matters to have other women to look to while navigating your own career feels pressing. In 10 years, how gender diverse will our boards, our C-suites, and our leadership pipelines be if up-and-coming women can’t find a North Star—a woman whose career path seems aspirational yet achievable—because she’s simply not there?
“We’ve potentially lost these women in really powerful positions, and when you can’t see it, it’s hard to imagine yourself doing it as well,” says Dana Hundley, cofounder of consulting firm Career Cooperative. Women’s losses during the pandemic could drastically alter women’s ability to envision their career trajectories.
And although this is technically still uncertain, it is in no way a reach. We know from our data that gender representation matters greatly to working women. Of our respondents:
84 percent of women say it’s important or very important to see women filling leadership roles where they work;
78 percent of women say it’s important or very important to see women performing the same work as them;
And 54 percent of women say they have a woman role model at work.
These results come at a time when dozens of industries like tech, finance, and engineering are still male-dominated, and even in female-dominated industries, most of the people at the top are white men. In 2020, women held 29 percent of senior leadership positions globally. That women value representation so highly but only half say they have a woman role model at work who they can emulate is troubling. It means many women want something—and maybe need something—that they aren’t getting.
And if the pandemic is threatening to worsen that? It’s high time for us all to better understand the impact women have on the careers of other women.
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Why women need representation and role models
There’s a business as well as a deeply personal way of delivering the importance of representation and role models for women, and we’re going to do both—because both matter.
Like Hundley, Lisa Smith, director of the Raleigh/Durham chapter of Women Who Code and soon-to-be engineering manager at Netflix, says representation contributes to—to quote Billie Jean King—a “you have to see it to be it” mentality, but she links it, first, to retention. “It matters seeing women in those roles because then you know it’s achievable, and it gives you a reason to stay,” she says. “Women leave, in tech, at a rate that’s twice as high as men at the 10-year mark. When only 2 percent of all humans are going to make it into the C-suite and your number drops, then that becomes essentially zero mathematically. You don’t stay if you don’t see a place for you.”
Alongside that, a woman’s ability to picture herself as a manager or leader is affected by whether other women hold those positions. “I honestly had never contemplated management before somebody talked to me about a management role because I didn’t see anybody follow a path like I had,” Smith says. “Admittedly, my career is nonlinear, but I always thought, ‘I’m always going to report to a guy. That’s how it’s going to be in tech.’ But when somebody offered me that opportunity, I saw how important it was.”
Hundley says seeing a woman with a path like yours can spark something inside you to achieve the same feat, maybe even faster than you would have if you'd done so on your own. “There’s this element of breaking down walls and breaking down barriers to entry when you see someone do something. It makes it feel more attainable to you, especially if that person looks like you, has similar experiences to you, shares some of the same challenges.”
Finding “likeness” with high-achieving women is where the concept of representation and role models becomes both personal and intersectional. Women can’t all rely on the same successful woman for guidance because her lone experience will in no way capture the wealth of diversity women represent. In other words, it’s not enough to have just one woman at the top.
A working mom, for instance, might be drawn to a role model who is also a working mom because she deals with the same struggles day in and day out, and the role model’s career provides a road map. The same could be said for a Black woman ladder-climbing in a corporate environment who feels inspired by a Black woman CEO or someone hoping to find an LGBTQ-friendly workplace who feels connected to a leader who’s openly gay. Seeing people like you in more ways than just gender matters.
“We all have different aspects of our diversity that we bring when we bring our whole selves to work,” Smith says. It’s tempting to hide parts of who you are because some aspects of your identity might make your work life more taxing. But, “when you see someone who is living their whole, true self at work, it’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s amazing.’”
Women role models as mentors
Smith says her role model, Kristina Kemmer, the engineering manager at Smith’s outgoing employer Zapier, is one such woman leading with authenticity. Not only is her successful leadership style apparent when Smith looks at the happiness and respect Kemmer garners from her team, but also, “She has had a career very similar to mine in terms of the different kinds of roles that she’s had and places she’s worked. She’s a mom. There are lots of ourselves that we feel like we can’t bring to work, and she kind of just does, and I love that. I don’t know that I had the confidence to do some of those things, so I appreciate her modeling that.”
Kemmer also made a strategic decision when Smith was hired: “From the outset, when we knew I wasn’t going to be reporting to her, she set up a recurring meeting every two weeks,” Smith says. In the meetings, they discuss leadership strategy, navigating office politics, balancing personal and professional lives, and more. Kemmer is Smith’s sounding board. “Having that unfettered access where I can talk to her about whatever I need feels like a gift that I couldn’t put a price tag on.”
The Smith-Kemmer dynamic is the mentorship and sponsorship we gain from gender representation. “It’s incredibly important to have female representation in different industries, in different roles, in different capacities, in order to have women advocates,” Hundley says. “It’s one thing to see a person in a position of power and be inspired and motivated by them. It’s another to have that person reach out to you and say, ‘I know what it’s like to be where you are’ and offer guidance.”
Having a woman you respect advocating for you can be pivotal because she can teach you how to navigate power dynamics, Hundley says. Smith agrees.
“It’s a thing I think we overlook far too often as we encourage women to be leaders—how isolating it can be,” Smith says. “Even as we move through management, and everyone is getting more isolated, women are even more so.”
She continues, “Nobody’s born being a manager. It’s a separate craft. The fallacy of, ‘You’re good at your job, you should be a manager of the same thing,’ doesn’t play out. You have to look for somebody who has that empathy to lead other humans, to be able to listen and understand them. But also, there’s tact, there are strategies, there’s How do you run a good meeting?, there are all sorts of basics that no one ever tells you. It’s kind of like Management 101, but then once you’ve got those basics down, it’s: What is your path as a manager?”
Woman-to-woman mentorship and guidance improves that learning curve significantly. Without such support, “It’s going to be harder,” Smith says. “It’s going to be kind of exhausting, and frankly, being a woman in tech is exhausting enough.”
That said, addressing gaps in representation and the need for more women role models will take time, especially if the pandemic continues to take a toll on the women in the leadership pipeline. But, Hundley says, there are still ways women can support the growth of other women without working in the same office—or even while doing paid work at all.
“I was recently asked, ‘What’s the best way to support women in your community?’ And the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Offer advice. Offer career support. Offer them your network.’”
About our sources
Lisa Smith is an incoming Engineering Manager at Netflix. She founded the Raleigh/Durham chapter of the global organization Women Who Code. Smith has been working online since before there was a Google, holding a variety of positions in both front- and back-end development in whatever language or framework was needed for the job. She is an instructor, a speaker, and passionate about diversity and inclusion in technology, specifically retention and advancement of underrepresented groups.
Dana Hundley is the cofounder of Career Cooperative, an Oakland, California–based boutique consulting firm that empowers clients to face career transitions, professional growth, and recruiting with confidence. They consult with companies to attract diverse talent through impactful recruiting and interview strategies and support employees through career development.