You may have observed that we human beings often learn through the act of mimicking each other, from the example of a child copying their parent, to learning a dance on Tik Tok. If we dive a little deeper, let’s iron out the historical perspective -
The term ‘role model’ itself originated from the research of Robert K Merton, a famous American sociologist in the 20th century. He theorised that we use ‘reference groups’ to benchmark our own behaviour as individuals, but also to compare and contrast our self-perception. A ‘role model’ is, by extension, someone “whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others”. A frame of reference, that is one step beyond the reference group in that it’s someone we admire or aspire to be more like.
Shortly after Merton coined the term, the notion of the ‘role model’ quickly became adopted into everyday language. Pretty soon, we had a range of 20th century role models that emerged from sports, athletes, pop artists, to presidents - and the term has even been attributed to whole countries' political strategies.
Fast-forward to 2015, another significant piece of research known as “The Motivational Theory of Role Modelling” proved the link between having a role model, and the motivation of achieving one’s goal. The framework outlines three specific functions of role models: someone who represents the possible, acts as a behavioural model, and provides a source of inspiration.
These three perspectives of what a role model can represent are important, and we might begin to see why it makes perfect sense that role models are so especially important for young people and for gender and ethnic minorities. Another publication on the topic of leadership and role models, puts it this way: “Role models are an important part of the development of social identities (...) the scarcity of female role models in leadership positions plays a major part in the persistence of the stereotypical construction of leadership.” Simply put, to achieve an equal and balanced society we need to have a more diverse set of role models from all kinds of backgrounds.
If you are a young person today, just beginning to learn about the world and how to navigate it, you need inspiration from someone who has gone through that journey themselves. You also might benefit from knowing what hurdles might come your way, and how other people with similar hurdles have tackled them historically. Of course there’s extraordinary value in learning by doing - that is why work experience is so important for young people to put their skills to practice and learn new ones, and something F4S drives as part of our mission.
What we keep coming back to from speaking to all kinds of people in our daily work, and most recently in conjunction with Role Model Week at F4S, is that while you might have some notion of what you are interested in exploring, a role model can show you the pathways and perhaps even inspire a frame of mind that will help you get there.
So where do we go from here? Like the old adage “a chip off the old block” or “Like father, like daughter” alludes to, one good place to start is at home. Whether actively encouraged or not, children pick up a lot from adults around them, and so parents naturally become a child’s first frame of reference when thinking about things like careers, or what skills they would like to have and why. We at F4S want to encourage parents and adults to, as part of Role Model Week, bring the conversation home to the kitchen table. To, together with young people in your household, reflect on and explore what the future might hold. Talk about what role models your children might have in different professions, and what skills, talents, or world topics peak your children's interest. Talk about what role models you had when you were young, and what helped shape your perspective, motivations and consequently your goals.
As a second point, we would like Role Model Week at F4S to also highlight the importance of creating an exchange between young people and business leaders - and the more variety of industry leaders they can speak to the better! Because, as the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see” - so let’s show our future generations what careers exist, what developing industries are out there, and what skills these require on a daily basis - so that they can see what role they could play in the future.
Like our Founders4Schools trustee Lauren von Stackelberg touched on in her Role Model Week reflection, wherever you are in your life journey, there are those looking to you and wondering about your experiences, and there are lessons you’ve gone through that can help others. We all have a responsibility to pay it forward. That means that, whatever your industry and experience, sharing your story will impact others, and inspire them to work towards their goals. If you don’t know where to start, we can guarantee that volunteering a bit of your time with our F4S school encounters will go a long way.
If you take anything away from this post, we hope it’s this: Remember the function of a role model, as defined in 2015 research we mentioned earlier, and be a sounding board for the young people around you. After all, we are inspired by young people every day - why not return the favour?
Three functions of a Role Model:
Show others what’s possible
Set an example of the right mind set or perspective
Inspire others to set their own goals
To round things off, we’d love to share some resources we think might help to inspire young people around you: