Your Turn: What Makes For A Great Role Model?

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I want to share with you two thoughtful reader responses to my post from earlier today, “How To Choose A Role Model Who Will Really Motivate You.” First, Brian Fox:

“This part [of your post] got me thinking: ‘But when the researchers exposed middle-school girls to women who were feminine and successful in STEM fields, the experience actually diminished the girls’ interest in math, depressed their plans to study math, and reduced their expectations of future success. The women’s “combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls,” the authors conclude, adding that “gender-neutral STEM role models,” as well as feminine women who were successful in non-STEM fields, did not have this effect.’

We run a ‘Women in Engineering’ breakfast each year and we invite in parents and community members who are women in various fields of engineering. They speak to our 8th grade girls about their experiences in the field and how they got to where they are at. If this does in fact have a negative effect on middle school girls then I am actually doing them a disservice according to this article. Very interesting food for thought. Certainly making me think. Then again, how do we encourage the girls if we cannot hold up some role models for them to show them that they may indeed find success?”

Here’s my response:

Brian, thank you for your thoughtful comments. In regard to your question—maybe the women you bring in to speak could talk about some of the obstacles they faced, setbacks they overcame, mistakes they made etc.—so that the girls feel that they are relatable and not too “perfect” and inaccessible?

And second, here’s reader Mary Reilley Clark:

“Perhaps we overestimate students’ ability to identify with people skilled in various fields because we don’t show the steps on how to reach that level. I don’t arrange speakers at my middle school, but such events are often held in the library where I work. I’ve observed students are most attentive when we have high school and college students speak to them. People talking about careers may spark an interest for some students, but for many, the best role model may be someone who is just a step ahead. When a child will be the first in her family to attend college, she needs someone who speaks about high school course selection, extracurricular activities that help with college acceptance, etc. Businesses use just in time inventory methods. Maybe we need to look at just a step ahead role models.”

I love Mary’s idea of “just a step ahead” role models. Brilliant readers, have you ever felt more intimidated than encouraged by a potential role model? Who have you found to be a “just right” role model—accessible and yet still inspiring? Please share your thoughts!

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3 Responses to “Your Turn: What Makes For A Great Role Model?”

  1. Louise H Jackson says:

    I developed undergraduates as music ambassadors to work with 13-17 year olds, on a summer school called Chi Rocks for 14 yo and they worked together on songwriting projects. They were close enough in age to ‘relate’ and the paths that the undergrads had recently trodden were still relevant to the school pupils. It also helped the undergraduates understand their own pathway, actually providing a reflective point for them and aided their thinking about weir next steps. Nobody wanted the lecturers involved until the end of the programmes to celebrate the work done on writing songs. Very proud in all that have done work on Chi Rocks and would fully advocate the just a step ahead model.

  2. Melanie says:

    If the reasearchers had asked those middle school girls if they’d rather be smart or beautiful I think we’d have some interesting information. The point being, in our culture girls are set up from a young age to choose between the two. By middle school, it is not “cool” to be labeled smart and research shows girls try to play down their intelligence. We need to start to show girls from a very young age that they can be both attractive and smart. The role models in this experiment do just that. Also, “attractive” comes in all forms and should be reframed to include basic health issues/grooming and cultural differences as well as physical ability/disability. When we as a culture start to reframe the issue, and continue to showcase ALL forms of attractive WITH smart in role models, over time we will see more favorable results on this kind of research. I like the idea of “just right role models” but think those work best as mentors, instead of role models, where kids are developing personal relationships. Role models are often, and always have been, somewhat inaccessible in many ways – such as sports figures, celebrities and the President. But that doesn’t make them less effective. Their status isn’t threatening as much as it is inspiring, making kids want to challenge themselves, and put in the required effort, to attain the same. Hearing role model’s stories of perseverance over failure and obstacles is critical to making the role model idenitifable. But as the fashionable mantra goes, “if she can’t see it, she can’t be it”. So I vote to keep the female STEM panels coming!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    A co-worker’s son just completed medical school and was choosing his specialty. He decided on ob-gyn, and when I asked if he felt he’d be at a disadvantage (being male), he said no, that a recent study showed that women often preferred a male ob-gyn b/c of “competition.” I asked what that meant, and he said that there was “always an element of competition” between women, and that a successful female doctor made some women uncomfortable, leading to feelings that they, the patients, somehow fell short or “didn’t measure up.” As a successful, professional woman, I found this idea deeply disturbing; yet, it has stayed with me and I often wonder if it’s true. The stories and comments, above, lead me to believe it may be!

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