Arab women role models or no role models, that is… the dilemma?

Businesswoman in Office

Two days ago, I attended a conference in Beirut, the New Arab Woman Forum 2013. Many women leaders and entrepreneurs from across the world and the Middle East region attended, presented, moderated, argued, and challenged each other and the attending men as well. Carlos Ghosn was also one of the keynote speakers, so you can imagine how much one can pick up from such an event in terms of reflections, stories, and takeaways.

I myself was invited as a moderator of a panel on the making of an entrepreneur which is the very first brick in the whole entrepreneurship ecosystem. I was also asked to be a member of the jury for Arab women awards in six categories: Civic Service, Business, Entrepreneurship, Media, Artistic expressions, and Science, Research and Technology. All the candidates were certainly exceptional women who deserved the recognition, and there are many like them in the region, but yet, again and again in such events, lack of women role models in the Arab region came up many times.

It is indeed a sad fact that there is dearth of Arab professional women role models across the region. But the presenters and moderators tried hard to see if they could find some in the success stories, other than trying to present many of the participants as role models themselves. In fact, on one of the panels on successful women entrepreneurs, not one member was able to get away without telling the moderator who her role model was. And not one member missed mentioning her father or her mother.

I have seen this almost in every interview of a successful Arab woman when asked this question. I think it is safe to say that most people feel that their parents contributed to their success and I personally owe a lot to mine. I also would hope that my daughter would think of me as a role model for some area of her life, but I think most women on the panel and other successful Arab women may be missing the purpose of the question.

It may sound like a personal question and it is but it is also an opportunity to inspire other young women by stories and people who passed through their lives, so they search for them themselves. It is difficult to be inspired by someone else’s parents as you immediately think of your own. It is rarely that those who answer the question say specifically why they were inspired by their parents. While they may want to certainly mention their parents, I wish they could tell the audience a story of what and who inspired them to do something that in retrospect made a turn in their professional lives. Our young Arab girls need such stories.

I wanted to dig further and see how a role model is defined. Houghton Mifflin Word Origins tells an interesting history of the term. It is not as old as one may think, and in fact as lately as the 50’s of the last century, sociologists referred to such people as reference groups. Then it seems they began calling them reference individuals, and at one point reference idols! The sociologist Robert K. Merton, in the 1950s, made a distinction between reference individuals, who serve as patterns for living, and role models, whom we imitate in specific roles like “chasing tornadoes”, playing basketball, etc. His “role model” description caught on.

I like Merton’s distinction and it gave me a solution. Most parents being mentioned as role models could be described as reference individuals who inspire us to follow a pattern for living… but how about we define role models as people one is inspired by and wants to imitate for specific roles.

Does it matter what we call them? Perhaps not, but it seems to me that it matters that successful Arab women professionals use the opportunity when asked to inspire one or two young Arab women with stories on happenings, and role models who inspired their careers as well as their lives.

My role model? A hybrid of many people I was inspired by… none for all what they are and what they do, and many for something they have done and a trait I admired in them. I have a story for each, but that is for another day.

By Rana Salhab, Talent and Communications Partner at Deloitte Middle East

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