Serena Williams and the business of role models

The world is abuzz, rightly so, discussing Serena Williams’s being in the Wimbledon Finals. I mean it is no biggie for her, she has done it a gazillion times before. But this time she is playing the final just 10 months after giving birth and having had several life saving surgeries, which left her unable to walk. She is 36 but her achievements would be considered extraordinary even if she were much younger. Her seeding for Wimbledon too divided opinion.

Serena is seen as a role model for many reasons – a black woman from the ‘hood reaching the top of an elite game is no accident. She faces a multifaceted whammy of racism and sexism on and off the courts. She has even been drug-tested more often than other players.

Serena was on my mind, when chatting with my friend C last week in a slightly different postcode of London from where Serena is playing today. She is one of the rare women tailors on Savile Row and brings a refreshing combination of the modern and the edgy to the old-fashioned, apprenticeship driven model of excellence that Savile Row is famous for. She also has a spine of titanium to be working – and shining – in an industry steeped in old misogynistic “values”.

We talked about how so many young women in training in her trade see her as a “role model” and how she might make her decisions to balance the career with the desire to have a family, the physical burden of which falls on the woman, simply by biological necessity.

I shared several stories of women with careers, families and kids, whom I count as friends. We also talked about the difficulty of being an always-on critical thinker and thinking of anyone at all as a role model, without seeing some of their choices as internally inconsistent. After our long chat exploring various pragmatic and emotional dilemmas women with children (with or without partners) face, we came to this conclusion.

There are no straightforward role models for a trailblazer.

Once I said it aloud, C and I sat in silence for a while. Pondering what that really meant. C is indeed a trailblazer and she may never find a role model to look to, in building her life and success.

The role models may not be in the same industry, or even living a life which looks similar to one we have or wish to build.

Potential role models, as we lamented a bit, may not make internally consistent choices and the clash of values may make it hard for us to focus on the good bits as the bad bits cloud our eyes and minds.

Indeed role models may not exist at all in human form.

We may need to build our own “virtual role model” by abstracting what behaviours and choices and decision models we see we like and configuring them into something we see as admirable, as something to emulate.

How, given this, might a person parse “you can’t be what you can’t see”?

This brings me to my hearty disapproval of the cottage industry that has sprung up around the idea that women have no self confidence. After all, without self confidence, how can one be a trailblazer at all?

Talking about women’s lack of self confidence is likely the worst form of sexism as it wraps up so many gender stereotypes in it. Indeed research suggests that women’s lack of self confidence may be a Nessie-like myth.

For those, whom such commentary affects greatly, the whole discourse on one entire gender’s confidence can be a sink of time and energy and bandwidth. It distracts them from considering pursuits that may bring about criticism and barbs. It keeps them from building their own virtual role models. It keeps them from being what they are not seeing.

We come back to Serena. Her confidence is well-grounded and in perfect balance with the overall state of the game in tennis, as she told this journalist who asked her if she minded always being the one to beat.

Her role model? Not another current or former tennis player but her own mother.

(Big thanks to Syamant for helping develop the idea further!)