As the gender diversity conversation continues to rage on, more and more women are calling for greater representation in the boardroom. Whilst there have been notable gains made in girls entering STEM careers, the dearth of women in senior business roles is still a thorn in the side of many, particularly those within the feminist movement. With debates around gender quotas and mandatory gender pay gap reporting, we ask if the lack of female business role models will deter young women from climbing the corporate ladder and infiltrating the so-called ‘old boys club’.

Where are all the female business leaders?

How often have you heard the famous quote, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, from American activist Marian Wright Edelman? Our recent survey of several aspiring female entrepreneurs for our #AspiringWomen series suggested that young women struggle to find female role models with some naming their mums as their only role model.

Indeed, mothers often make the best role models for aspiring female leaders as they teach us vital transferable skills that prove extremely valuable in business. From managing the family budget and organising family holidays to balancing busy careers with raising well-adjusted children, mothers can teach us plenty about running an effective business despite them not having a business background.

“My mother is the most inspirational woman in my life. She left her life in Kenya and then India and came to England in the 1980s. She has since worked so hard, raised three children and has never stopped supporting them. My mother encouraged me to read from a young age and it’s where my passion for learning and seeking more knowledge comes from. Even now, she is my biggest champion and there’s nothing that makes me happier than making her proud,” says Priya Shah of BAME in Property.

Tenesia Pascal founder of Earth to Earth Organics echoes this sentiment and spoke affectionately about her grandmother as one of her main sources of inspiration.

“My grandmother Mrs Gloria Fraser raised me and my brother. She moved to England from Guyana to provide a better life for her family. She worked as a bus conductor and faced harsh racism daily during her time here. She moved back to Guyana with my grandfather after they’d made enough money and launched several successful businesses such as a record printing plant, a food factory and a television station.”

Well known female business leaders like Ursula Burns, the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, were forced to challenge perceptions and shatter glass ceilings to become leaders in their field often with no other female role models to aspire to. These women have managed to penetrate the often impenetrable old boys club and have worked hard to forge successful careers despite all the obstacles. Their sheer grit and determination in the face of rampant workplace sexism and have paved the way for future female business leaders who now have role models who look just like them.

Be the change you want to see

The women we surveyed for our upcoming #AspiringWomen series are all inspirational business leaders in their own right. They continue to work tirelessly to follow their passions whilst encouraging others to also find their own paths. Shabari Saha founder of The London Vegan Business Network echoes this sentiment by referring to women outside of the business world who overcame huge obstacles to make the world a fairer place for other women.

“Emmeline Pankhurst – leader of the suffragette movement is hugely inspirational. She changed the course of history and because of her; women now have the right to vote, which is a huge step in not only democracy but also equality for both men and women. There is, of course, still a long way to go in terms of equality in the workplace, especially regarding equal pay but having the right the vote would not have happened if it wasn’t for the efforts and sacrifice of the suffragettes.”

In a bid to increase the number of girls in STEM careers, academics often stress the importance of female role models in these sectors which are typically dominated by men. Fei Yao, founder of edtech startup NewCampus says “I am building a company in industries traditionally built by men, and usually much older men in more established markets – education and technology. It’s easy to feel like you don’t have a place in the room – especially when you are starting out and don’t have much to back you yet. But it’s important to stick to your strengths, carve out a niche and focus on your unique insight.’’

More and more women like Fei are building successful careers in STEM and business ensuring young aspiring entrepreneurs have a diverse range of leaders to look up to.

Aspiring Panda launched the #AspiringWomen community hub to provide women a safe place to share their stories and access advice to build their confidence and increase their leadership skills. Use the #AspiringWomen hashtag on Twitter to share your stories about your female role models and we will retweet our favourites!