(Originally published in Nature.)

The hero, the outlaw, the caregiver—which one of these roles do you play when you’re at work? The theory of archetypes, originated by Carl Jung, fascinates me as a way to understand works of fiction, marketing campaigns, and also the roles we play in the academic workplace.

Archetypes_miniThe theory explains how a short list of roughly twelve staple characters appears over and over in movies, novels, songs, and so on. These characters, like the hero, the outlaw, the sage, and the wizard, are so common that there must be something permanent about them; the characters live in our minds, waiting for an author to evoke them with a slight gesture or prop. Place a wand in the character’s hand, and he becomes a magician. Place a crown on his head, and he becomes a ruler.

The same thing can happen while you’re at work. Place a coffee pot in a woman’s hand and in the eyes of some beholders, she can become a caregiver. Trade that coffee pot for a pinstriped suit, and she becomes a ruler. When you’re watching a movie or reading a novel, the archetypes in your mind help you understand the writer’s shorthand and identify with the characters in the story. But the natural tendency of humans to see certain kinds of characters in everyone we meet affects many aspects of our daily lives.

I met with the Women in Astrophysics group at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in December to talk about the roles we play at work and at home. I chatted for two hours with this group of mostly junior scientists with PhDs in planetary science, astronomy or physics. We studied a list of twelve common archetypal characters (below) and we took turns telling each other what archetypes we saw in one another. Everyone filled out a short, anonymous survey form about archetypes, which I collected at the end. What I learned from this process surprised me.

Women scientists in my group aimed to display a wide range of archetypes at work, but they generally tried to avoid the “caregiver”.

I asked my female colleagues: what archetypes do you aim to display when you are at work? The answers covered a wide range: hero/warrior, outlaw, explorer, creator, sage, wizard. To me, these archetypes seem collectively well matched to the job of a scientist, who must do some exploring, some thinking, some overcoming of adversity and rebelling against the status quo, and maybe even appear to do a bit of magic. But none of my colleagues admitted to projecting the joker, the lover, the everyman/everywoman, or the innocent archetypes. And when I mentioned the caregiver archetype, my female colleagues seemed repulsed. Certainly they would try to avoid that!

In her 2004 book, Nice Women Don’t Get The Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers, Lois Frankel more or less warns women against projecting the caregiver archetype, suggesting that it hinders women’s careers. I suspect that the women in my group were heeding the warning from Lois Frankel and others to avoid playing the caregiver at work: to avoid making the coffee at meetings, to avoid keeping food in your office or decorating it with children’s drawings, and so on. Lois: we read you loud and clear.

Nonetheless, women scientists see one another as “caregivers”.

When we asked each other what archetypes we saw in one another, we heard a surprising answer, over and over. Almost all the women in my group found that their female colleagues saw them partly as caregivers—despite their efforts to avoid this role.

As you might imagine, discovering this trend made many of us uncomfortable and provoked some discussion. Now, as far as life experience goes, no one archetype is better than any other. Indeed, the theory says that you haven’t lived a full life until you’ve tried on all of those roles.  But in the workplace, it’s a different story; you have to develop a personal brand that will take you to the next stage of your career.  And it seems that young women in science—trying to avoid the “caretaker” label, but branded with it anyway—are generally struggling to define their images.

Just being a woman in science makes you a bit of a “hero”.

A third trend emerged from our discussion—a trend that may help with this struggle. We all agreed during our discussion that succeeding in science as a woman means overcoming some adversity. Well, the hallmark of the hero/warrior archetype is the ability to take on challenges and overcome adversity. Therefore, we all agreed, the hero/warrior archetype was associated to some degree with every woman in the academic workplace, intended or not.

What archetype do you aim to project at work?  And what archetypes do your colleagues see in you?  Do they match?  Please write and let me know.

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Here’s a list of common archetypes and famous women who project them, adapted from The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson.  See, for example, theherowithin.com.

  • The Ruler: The Dean, the CEO, the boss. When you use your American Express card, you’ll feel like you’re in charge. Microsoft. Hillary Clinton. To play the ruler, wear expensive clothes, especially those with some shoulder padding. Try a fancy watch; the Rolex watch company even has a crown as its logo.
  • The Creator: With Legos, you can build anything you can imagine. Home Depot. The Blue Man group. Apple. Google. Martha Stewart.  To play the creator, aim to create tools for other people in your field to use, software you give away on your website, for example. Dress with a flourish that shows you are little bit different than everyone else.
  • The Sage: The sage dispenses advice. The sage can be a regular pedant or a know-it-all, like Sheldon on the television show Big Bang Theory. But some sages are hip and kind, like Oprah Winfrey. Props that make the sage are books and papers—or perhaps an article in Inside Higher Ed giving tips on workplace strategies. The sage is a typical archetype for professors; in academia, you may have trouble avoiding it.
  • The Outlaw: Outlaws can be good or bad, but either way, they hate authority and the status quo. If you want to feel like a rebel, you can wear black and leather, like a Harley Davidson leather jacket. Maybe try a tattoo. This archetype might make you unpopular with your stodgy department chair, but it sure sells books. Patti Smith.
  • The Hero/Warrior: The hero is the character that faces challenges and overcomes adversity. Justice clothing for girls. The Army. Sally Ride. The rock singer Pink. I think this is a good archetype for someone competing on the job market—because it shows that you are ready to compete. (See above for more about the hero.)
  • The Explorer:  Always ready for adventure, the explorer is discontent to sit at home. Indiana Jones. Amelia Earhart. U2’s song, “Where the Streets Have No Name”.  The explorer is a good archetype for geologists, anthropologists, and other academics who want to emphasize field work. To play the explorer, keep travel photos in your office, wear a backpack and ride in on a Jeep.
  • The Wizard: The wizard creates real change seemingly out of nothing, and appears to command the supernatural, like Oil of Olay, or Lady Gaga. A good archetype for consultants.

The other archetypes on the list, not preferred by the women in my group for their office personas, are the Lover, the Innocent, the Caregiver, the Everywoman, and the Joker.

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One Response to Caregiver or Hero—Which One Are You? The Archetypal Roles of Women in Science and Academia

  1. Caroline says:

    I can’t help but wonder why the “everywoman” and “caretaker” archetypes are so poorly viewed while the “superwoman” is hailed as the model to strive to achieve. Surely, when recruiting the next generation of women in astronomy, is the “superhero” archetype really the image we want to project? Young women may be intimidated with such a stereotype.

    On another note, why should women leave part of themselves (caretaker and everywoman) behind in the car park to put a persona to go to work?

    I’m not saying these young women were wrong for thinking this way, I’m just a bit saddened. I think I’d be quite proud to be identified with the “caretaker” archetype as I don’t believe it is mutually exclusive with being a good scientist.

    I wonder if the same is true for men? Would a man be embarrassed to be perceived as a caretaker?

    Does anyone else have any thoughts on that?

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