Who Are Known As Role Models?

role model is a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people. The term “role model” is credited to sociologist Robert K. Merton, who coined the phrase during his career. Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. An example being the way young fans will idolize and imitate professional athletes or entertainment artists.

Effect on career opportunity and choice

A person’s chosen role models may have a considerable impact on his or her career opportunities and choices. The suitability of a role model depends, in part, on the admirer’s perceived commonality with the model, who should provide an image of an ambitious yet realistic goal. For example, Benjamin Franklin served as the role model for countless nineteenth-century white businessmen, including such notables as Thomas Mellon, B.F. Goodrich, and Frederick Weyerhäuser. Later, the lack of commonalities between potential role models and would-be admirers helped perpetuate barriers to American minorities and women as they tried to advance in a business world dominated by white men, thus spurring late twentieth-century efforts to develop suitable role models for these groups.

Role models show significant effects on female students’ self-confidence in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields. The gender difference between role models and female students has shown to have no significant effect on student attitudes, whereas perceived dissimilarity with stereotypical role models showed a negative effect on self-confidence in pursuing STEM careers. The perceived similarity with non-stereotypical role models (of either gender) shows a positive effect on self-confidence to succeed in STEM occupations.

Parent role models also significantly influence a person’s “education and training aspirations, task self-efficacy, and expectancy for an entrepreneurial career”.

How to Become a Role Model?

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.