Is it right to make a straight-out judgement on “good” and “bad” role models?
As a female chief executive working in a predominantly male industry, I am often asked if I had a female role model. And I have to be honest, it is not a question that I find easy to answer.
From the other side, as a mother of two teenage daughters, the observation is usually “you must be such a good role model for them”. Again, a statement I am not too sure about. The reality is, I am sure that my daughters, for now, would admire much more the qualities of the female Love Island contestants, or the latest make-up vlogger with millions of subscribers.
When I see these so-called role models, I am quick to dismiss their vacuous attempts at gaining popularity, admonishing my daughters for believing that there is anything substantial about these air-brushed, filtered and superficial people.
But while young girls may follow Instagrammers or popstars to keep up with trends, if you dig a little deeper, I have found that most can admire this from afar. They can emulate the style and selfie poses, but are not building their life on the hope that this will be the outcome for them. These social media influencers are not, therefore, true role models.
This anecdotal behaviour has been backed up by academic studies proving that celebrities are far less influential than we think, which is one less thing for us parents to worry about.
That doesn’t mean that role models don’t matter. Many surveys have found that girls considering STEM subjects tend to follow these subjects through to further education if they have had a role model to follow. While the role model does not necessarily need to be female, it does help to dispel stereotypes that maths and technology roles are the preserve of men.
What really matters is that the role model is someone who can inspire and motivate you to do your best, self-improve, and achieve greater success in whatever field is relevant to you.
This relevance point is critical – the success must be attainable. If too far out of reach, it can lead to feelings of failure, which is demotivating.
I have certainly observed and felt demotivated by unattainable role models in my own career. The image of the “Superwoman”, with a top-class career, gifted offspring, and a perfectly honed physique makes us less extraordinary women feel incompetent by comparison.
I have been to countless talks by women offering to give advice as a mentor, all the while knowing that behind their presentation is an army of helpers, child carers, and personal trainers. If it doesn’t relate to my life, then I cannot relate to them.
Much more uplifting, then, are role models who have overcome adversity to achieve their success, or those people who seem similar to us.
A recent talk at one of my daughter’s schools was attended by Kate Richardson-Walsh, the Team GB Hockey Captain. Kate painted a picture of her younger self watching international athletes on TV and admiring them, yet at the same time thinking: “but I am just ordinary, that’s not me”.
She really hit the perfect note with the group of teenage school children who were left thinking: “well, if she can do it, why not me”.
And that for me, is a role model.