ChapterThe term ‘role model’
Being seen as a ‘role model’ is not a universally appealing prospect. For some it suggests an expectation of perfection, the risk of being put on a precarious pedestal or the possibility of being seen as arrogant. This may explain the reticence expressed by a number of the participants when asked why others might view them as successful. In contrast, they were relaxed and eloquent when invited to talk about the women they saw as admirable or inspiring. As a result, we decided to blend these responses together, so that we could paint a more comprehensive picture of what it means to be a successful female role model.
The inevitability of being seen as a role model
“Being a woman means I am a role model - like it or not.”
If there are fewer of you in the workplace, it is an uncomfortable fact that you will be more conspicuous. For women, this heightened visibility tends to increase with seniority, as their numbers diminish. It is therefore somewhat inevitable that people will be watching and making value judgements about how a woman does her job, like it or not. A younger colleague, for example, is likely to be observing her example to pick up clues about how things work and what it takes to get on.
It is also important to note that someone need not be senior to be a role model – in fact it is imperative that role models exist at all levels of an organisation to positively affect its culture. An operational manager, or group leader, is likely to have greater day-to-day impact on those around them than the most senior people in the institution.
To an extent we are all role models, irrespective of intent, on the basis that we exercise influence over others through our behaviour. The women involved in this book are role-modelling types of success just by who they are and how they approach their working lives. Becoming aware of, and accepting, this reality presents an opportunity to become more intentional with the effect we have on others. In essence, the choice is not about whether someone wishes to be a role model or not, but rather about what kind of role model they want to be.
And of course it’s not just women who influence other women. Most people tend to work with composite role models, learning from a wide range of individuals that they see as admirable in some way. Although the focus of this chapter is on the qualities of successful female role models, it is important to note that many of the women involved in the book described men as having been some of their most formative and positive influences. A couple of participants were also very clear that they didn’t feel that the gender of their role models was relevant to them in any way.
“I have to say that most of my role models have been men!”
The qualities associated with successful female role models
The summary of role-model qualities with illustrative quotes seen on the following page is based on the attributes that the women in the book valued most either in themselves or in the people that they admired. It therefore signposts those qualities likely to be appreciated by colleagues, whilst also signalling the behaviours most clearly linked with the definition of success that is emerging from this book. These qualities, presented in no particular order of priority, are not however intended to form a shopping list, which requires every item to be ticked off before a person can be judged to be successful. Instead, it can help individuals and organisations think about the qualities they value most highly and how they can create the conditions to make them commonplace. Inevitably – and reassuringly – there are also significant overlaps with trends and themes you have already seen emerging in previous chapters.
Demonstrates self-awareness with insight into their own values, sticks to principles, consistent, kind and courteous.
Track record of honesty and fair treatment of others.
Does the right thing even when it’s not popular.
“ I certainly don’t play power games, but this hasn’t prevented me from doing well in my field.”
“ Be authentic, summon support, find like-minded others, do what you believe in, trust your instincts, take up offers of intellectual and other support/friendship, never compromise your basic values or identity.”
Good connectors and collaborators, able to engage others, often using humour and enthusiasm.
Generous in supporting and developing people.
Prioritises relationships and makes time for them.
“ My students like me because no question is too stupid to ask, and I support the notion that there is no shame in getting things wrong.”
“ She always cared about more than just the professional me.”
Authority and leadership
Authoritative and responsible, with capacity to inspire respect from colleagues – both male and female.
Politically astute, calm under pressure and willing to make tough calls when needed.
“ (I am) ready to listen to various sides of the argument, but also to make firm decisions. I try not to ‘pull rank’ but to take responsibility where it falls to me.”
Exercises influence and demonstrates commitment to gender equality.
“ I am particularly proud of being a role model not only for women, but also for mature students.”
“ I still find myself in places where one can be forgiven for thinking women have yet to be invented. Pointing this out – with grace and humour, but more importantly attempting to remedy it – is just one small example of the many interventions that senior academic women can make in working towards a 50:50 society.”
Accessible and fallible
A realistic and accessible role model for others, ‘ordinarily extraordinary’.
“ Often it is women of a similar age to myself who inspire me, and help me to feel that the inevitable corners I cut on both fronts (work and home) are understandable and justified.”
High-quality work and attitude
“ I find her success in world-class science is an inspiration. The fact that she has done this without acquiring masculine traits and a ruthless attitude is even more impressive.”
“ I do not simply accept the status quo: I often try to improve systems, restructure the department etc.”
“ I admire them for being professional about their work, whether they are researchers, computer officers, academic staff or administrators and technicians. I admire them for their commitment
Confident and authentic
“ Women who have been able to be themselves (apparently) and keep their end up politely.”
“ She listens intently, and has such an ability to assimilate and process information, and then to make up her own mind and stick to it.”
“ Her bravery in tackling such extreme and offensive sexism on behalf of all women in the public eye.”
“ Knowing my brief, listening carefully, seeking collaboration, harvesting support and having resilience and courage to do the difficult things when necessary.”
The ‘add-on principle’
In reviewing the qualities captured in the table above, and considering what it means in practice to be a role model, we were struck by what we have called the ‘add-on principle’. This describes the cumulative expectation and repeated use of ‘and’ that came with seeing someone as admirable. For example, some women were described as academically or professionally brilliant and full of integrity and skilled at making time for their family. This suggests a richness and roundedness in what women valued and saw as successful. They seemed less inclined to view someone as impressive if that person displayed just one of these qualities in abundance, but failed to exhibit any others. Given that we only spoke to women for this book, we are not in a position to say whether men would require a similar breadth of attributes, or whether they would be more comfortable viewing someone as successful based on the strong demonstration of a single aspect. It would be interesting to see if other research could shed a light on any differences between the genders in this regard.
The darker side to the ‘add-on principle’ is that it suggests someone needs to attain an extraordinarily high standard before being viewed as truly successful. It was also noticeable that participants seemed to be more exacting in applying these criteria to themselves than to others. This streak of perfectionism holds the potential to drive high performance, but when overplayed also risks unhelpful distortions in self-assessment.
The value of role models
There is something fundamentally generous about a person accepting that they are a role model. In effect, they are seeing that their influence can extend beyond themselves and their own careers to impact on others. But role modelling is as much an exercise in organisational commitment as it is a matter of individual effort. If role models have the potential to signpost the way to a more inclusive future culture, whilst also having a positive impact on the current one, then how can organisations take best advantage of this? They need to think hard about who they typically see as role models, why and whether they are sending the right messages by the way they hold up particular people as success stories. Role models who are given profile and visibility are great indicators of who an organisation values most – and this can provide a kind of institutional audit of the range and diversity of individuals who are viewed as successful. If this range is too narrow, focuses just on the most senior, concentrates on one group over another or indeed lacks sufficient women, then there is room for progress and an insight into where that needs to take place. Ultimately, role models of the kind found in this book can inspire, embody and accelerate change – so any organisation would do well to find them and give them a platform.
A positive role model serves as an example–inspiring children to live meaningful lives.
Role models show young people how to live with integrity, optimism, hope, determination, and compassion. They play an essential part in a child’s positive development.
Natalie, age 18, described her role model as a person with “a clear sense of what is important to her, putting forth the effort to improve and create things that will make a difference.” When Samira, also 18, feels “lazy, tired, or just plain annoyed,” she thinks of her role model and “is motivated to start working again.”
Natalie and Samira were part of my research study on how young people develop the skills, abilities, and motivation to become engaged citizens. They and 42 other college students recalled stories of their childhoods and adolescence and the kind of people who inspired them. You can read their stories and learn more about my research in Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation.
Role models come into young people’s lives in a variety of ways. They are educators, civic leaders, mothers, fathers, clergy, peers, and ordinary people encountered in everyday life. My study showed that being a role model is not constrained to those with fancy titles or personal wealth. In fact, students were quick to state that “a true role model is not the person with the best job title, the most responsibility, or the greatest fame to his or her name.” Anyone can inspire a child to achieve their potential in life.
A Role Model Can Have Positive or Negative Impact
While my research focused on the positive impact of a role model in young people’s lives, role models can also have negative impacts. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests parents speak to their children about role models and the qualities they possess. Discover who your child’s role models are and why they are admired. Who do your children look up to for inspiration and guidance? Why?
Sometimes a positive role model will make poor choices. Don’t let your children assume that negative and inappropriate behaviors that involve racism, sexual harassment, and dishonesty by admired public figures or friends are acceptable. When a role model displays behavior that is negative, talk with your child about your family values and why the behavior is unacceptable.
By the time children become adolescents, they should be able to differentiate the positive and negative behaviors of the people they admire. Most often, when role models embrace inappropriate behaviors, they lose their ability to inspire others. However, if a child becomes significantly attached to a role model’s ideology, power, or popularity, the young person may believe the negative behavior is acceptable.
When families learn to teach integrity and live their values, children and teens are much more likely to recognize and be inspired by positive role models.
5 Qualities of a Positive Role Model
The top five qualities of role models described by students in my study are listed below. These qualities were woven through hundreds of stories and life experiences that helped children form a vision for their own futures. By far, the greatest attribute of a positive role model is the ability to inspire others.
1. A Role Model Shows Passion and Ability to Inspire
Role models show passion for their work and have the capacity to infect others with their passion. Speaking of several of his teachers, one student said, “They’re so dedicated to teaching students and helping students and empowering students. That is such a meaningful gesture. They are always trying to give back to the next generation. That really inspires me.”
2. A Role Model Shows a Clear Set of Values
Role models live their values in the world. Children admire people who act in ways that support their beliefs. It helps them understand how their own values are part of who they are and how they might seek fulfilling roles as adults. For example, students spoke of many people who supported causes from education to poverty to the environment. Role models helped these students understand the underlying values that motivated people to become advocates for social change and innovation.
3. A Role Model Shows Commitment to Community
A role model is other-focused as opposed to self-focused. Role models are usually active in their communities, freely giving of their time and talents to benefit people. Students admired people who served on local boards, reached out to neighbors in need, voted, and were active members of community organizations.
4. A Role Model Shows Selflessness and Acceptance of Others
Related to the idea that role models show a commitment to their communities, students also admired people for their selflessness and acceptance of others who were different from them. One student spoke of her father, saying “He never saw social barriers. He saw people’s needs and acted on them, no matter what their background or circumstances. He was never afraid to get his hands dirty. His lifestyle was a type of service. My father taught me to serve.”
5. A Role Model Shows Ability to Overcome Obstacles
As Booker T. Washington once said, “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which one has overcome.” Young people echoed this sentiment, showing how they developed the skills and abilities of initiative when they learned to overcome obstacles. Not surprisingly, they admire people who show them that success is possible.
One student shared a story of a young man she met in Cambodian while on a service-learning project with her school. “He is an incredibly hardworking individual who has faced unimaginable obstacles in his life, yet continues to persevere to support his family and encourage his community. He survived the Cambodian genocide. He earned his education in a system where those who succeed are the ones who bribe officials. He has dedicated his life to give back to his community. Wow! What an individual; and the best civic role model!”
Research studies have long shown a correlation between positive role models and higher levels of civic engagement in young people. Positive role models are also linked to self-efficacy, the ability to believe in ourselves. In fact, the young people in my study admitted that had they not learned to believe in themselves, they would not have been capable of believing they could make a difference in the world!
Children develop as the result of many experiences and relationships. Role models play an important role in inspiring kids to learn, overcome obstacles, and understand that positive values can be lived each day. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, civic leader, clergy member, sports coach, after-school program leader, or a person who just happens into a child’s life, you have the ability to inspire!
New Research on Youth Role Models
As a followup to this article, you may also be interested in reading how role models influence youth strategies for success. New research shows that young people choose role models based on the mindsets they develop toward accomplishing their goals! Based on their mindsets, they will choose either positive or negative role models.
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Price-Mitchell, M. (2010). Civic learning at the edge: Transformative stories of highly engaged youth. Doctoral Dissertation, Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.
Zukin, C., Keeter, S., Andolina, M. W., Jenkins, K., & Carpini, M. X. D. (2006). A new engagement? Political participation, civic life, and the changing American citizen. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Photo Credit: Lil Larkie
(This article was originally published July 13, 2011. It was updated and republished Dec. 4, 2017.)
Published: December 4, 2017Tags: mentoring, moral development, positive values, positive youth development, role models, teachers, youth civic engagement