Skip to main content
Dr. Elisabeth Kelan's picture

This story originally appeared in PwC blog.

One of Aoife’s recent blog entries shared some insights on the PwC Sponsored session that took place at this year’s Women’s Forum for Economy and Society’s annual global meeting.  The session entitled ‘Rising Stars: Developing Millennial Women as Leaders’ was a solutions-focused session based on the research findings of Dr. Elisabeth Kelan’s very recent book of the same name.  PwC have been very proud to support Dr. Kelan’s research and book which focuses on the intersection of generation, gender and leadership and what this means for developing millennial women as leaders.

PwC UK will be hosting a book launch event in their London office next week (19 November) during which we will host a panel discussion focused on the findings of Elisabeth’s research.  If you are interested in attending please contact Aoife and stay tuned to our blog and website as we will be posting videos and a chapter from Elisabeth’s book in the very near future.

In the meantime we are very pleased to share with you a guest blog from Dr. Kelan which zones in on one of the many topics covered in her book: the matter of role models.



Most conversations on women in leadership are quick to pinpoint a genuine reason for the absence of women in senior positions: the lack of female role models. The argument, junior women lack the inspiration to develop into senior leaders as there are so few women in senior roles. What does this mean for Millennial women? Millennial women are women from the Millennial generation, also called Generation Y. Those women are in their 20s and 30s, in junior roles in organizations and preparing themselves for leadership roles.

131112 - Kelan-PresentingWhile there is a lot of focus on the lack of senior women, how to develop junior women into leaders of tomorrow is still an under-researched area. This requires a focus on gender, generation as well as leadership development to articulate the nuances that will allow Millennial women to flourish. For this purpose the book describes a heuristic to help individuals and organizations to think through the issue of developing Millennial women as leaders. One element of this heuristic is role models. My book shows that the assumption that Millennial women just lack role models to develop as leaders is too simplistic: there are women in senior roles but Millennial women often reject them as role models.

Role models are essential for leadership development because they show aspiring leaders potential selves. Role models allow for identification. We often identify with others who are similar to ourselves. This explains why Millennial women might look for other women as role models. As women in senior roles are still scarce, many Millennial women need to look further afield. With a wider search pattern, Millennial women are likely find senior women who can function as a role model.

However the relationship between Millennial women and senior women is often not as straightforward as one would expect. Many Millennial women feel that senior women are not supporting them enough. Senior women are perceived to be pulling the ladder up behind them. This is often called the Queen Bee syndrome, which presumes that there are a limited number of places for women in senior roles and senior women do not want to have more competition from junior women.

However the reality is more complex than the Queen Bee syndrome suggests. Senior women might be overburdened by requests from junior colleagues to support them. They might be tired of being presented as ‘the female’ role model all of the time. Many senior women also feel inadequate as role models because they think of themselves as less than perfect - senior women without children often feel that way. In fact, many Millennial women look for female role models who have it all: a successful career, children and partner in life (they expect more from their role models than their male counterparts who often only want professional success in a role model). Senior women who do not have it all might just appear as less inspirational to millennial women.

Another explanation for the fact that many Millennial women cannot identify with female role models relates to how we imagine leaders to be. In the minds of many people leaders are still white men of a certain age. This is still the ideal that many aspiring leaders try to live up to and obviously women do not fit this stereotype. By being women alone, senior women will appear as unusual leaders and Millennial women will pick up on this. A female leader will appear against the background of the stereotype of a leader as a much weaker role model.

131112 - Book-CoverWhat can be done about this? Instead of emulating female leaders, Millennial women should integrate a range of role models. Leaders of the future will have to be authentic rather than clones of others. Millennial women should not struggle to find the ideal female role model but build composite role models that all embody a certain aspect that Millennial women can take on board. Organizational initiatives should ensure for instance that traditional mentoring relationships are going beyond a pair of people but instead embrace a multiplicity of relationships.

It is not just the scarcity of female role models that holds Millennial women back but also the ‘content’ of those female role models. Understanding why Millennial women might reject role models and how to challenge this, is a key issue when it comes to developing Millennial women as leaders. It is however not the only issue that needs to be considered. The book for instance highlights how specific barriers such as stereotypes and work-life balance can be navigated.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of strongly encourages our readers to post comments in response to blog posts. We value diversity of opinions and perspectives. Our goals for this space are to be educational, thought-provoking, and respectful. So we actively moderate comments and we reserve the right to edit or remove comments that undermine these goals. Thanks!