Viewpoint: Welcome to the role model club

Obama, Beckham, Malala

Society needs to stop looking at role models as superhuman and instead embrace their mistakes as well as their successes, argues Anne Marie Imafidon.

In 2000, I hit the headlines. I was in all the newspapers - part of the usual coverage on GCSE results. But I was 10 years old, and I'd passed two GCSEs - one in maths and one in ICT (technology). The following year, I passed an A-level in computing.

The headlines were all about "genius", "prodigy", "brain box" and "record-breaking" - describing the most unlikely schoolgirl from an unassuming, unprivileged background.

In the 13 years since, I've got used to being called something different - an "inspiration", "person to watch" and "role model". With over a decade of "role model" status behind me, I have a few thoughts on the way we view and treat role models, and I'd like to lift the lid on the monopoly of inspiration.

You see, I believe that inspiration can come from anywhere and that everyone can be a role model.

About the author

Anne Marie Imafidon

Anne Marie Imafidon recently set up the Stemettes project - a bid to inspire the next generation of females into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics roles via a series of panel events, hackathons and exhibitions.

Hear more from her on Radio 4's Four Thought on Wednesday 12 February at 20:45 BST or download the Four Thought podcast

It pains me to see the way we treat certain role models - who might be branded young and foolish - the young pop stars and young footballers - who we idolise, build up and put on pedestals as they rise in our estimations, in fortune and in accomplishments. We hail them nearly incessantly, celebrate their success and effectively encourage them to eat their own hype. We follow their every move and watch others emulate them and all that they do - even things not related to their success or accomplishments.

Like anyone else their age, they're enjoying what they have - unlike anyone else, they're constantly being told of their "role model" status and regularly reminded that young impressionable people are copying them. Then, when they do something we don't like, we tut, get surprised, get angry and even upset.

When the young pop star wears a too-skimpy outfit or the young footballer makes a mistake on the pitch - when, in other words, they make a mistake, as we all do, they are humans after all - we turn on them in a huge way. How dare they do something bad, given all the eyes on them? How dare they betray all of their fans by making the same mistakes millions of others are making at the same time, or would make if in their shoes?

There's a lot of pressure in being a role model. I once met a woman who kept a press cutting of my childhood feats under her daughter's pillow - presumably in the hope that my story would feature in her dreams and maybe even rub off on her daughter's hopes and achievements in life. Other role models will tell you of similar stories.

For some, there might be discomfort in knowing the scale of the pedestal you've been put on. In addition to the pressure of those watching you and watching to see what you do next, there is sometimes the expectation that you'll use your powers for good - to solve society's problems. And when you don't, there is huge condemnation for pursuing other interests. It's an awful feeling when everyone turns on you, especially when you've not courted the attention in the first place.

Justin Bieber Role model Justin Bieber leaves a correctional centre in Miami Beach

If you listen to public debates around everything from under-performance in school, to body image and women in business, we seem to be relying heavily on role models to provide inspiration.

People spend time and effort bemoaning the lack of black, female or LGBT role models, amongst others. The trouble is, you can't always tell where inspiration might come from. One's sense of identity is extremely complex. Yes, I'm a woman, but that doesn't mean that I bond with every female I meet. In fact, in most social situations I bond with fellow East Londoners a lot quicker than I do with girls who attended the same university as me.

I often get on better with what some might call computer geeks a lot quicker than I do people with the same heritage as me - I'm of West African descent. Also, I'm a huge Nando's fan - another part of my identity which seems to be quite an important one.

Granted, role models are a piece of the puzzle, but it's an excuse that "no-one like me" has done something, so I don't know if it's possible. Growing up I didn't know any management consultants, but a careers service questionnaire and some proper research was enough for me. I didn't need a Nando's-loving East Londoner to help me verify my choice. And I'm not unique in wanting to become the first, or at least not minding being the first.

Helping hand

So you don't need to see someone who looks like you. It's good enough to see someone like you. That means we should all see ourselves as role models. We're all human and we all have strengths. We all have parts of our identity that are like someone else's. It's not an exclusive club and we shouldn't treat it as one.

Rather than bemoan a lack of role models, particularly female ones in science, technology, engineering and maths (known as STEM), earlier this year I took it upon myself to begin exposing girls to those we already have.

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Inspiration can come from anywhere. And there is no monopoly on role modelling”

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At one recent role model event I spoke to a lady who had brought her daughter along. In the course of speaking with her I learnt that she herself held a PhD in astrophysics, sits on an important industry board and holds a CEng [chartered engineer qualification]. So I invited her to sit on the panel at our next event. Her response? "But I'm not qualified enough to sit on one of your panels." I told her off. Of course she was exactly what I was looking for and despite having been in the audience at the event, her membership of the "role model club" hadn't quite hit her.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. And there is no monopoly on role modelling. Instead we need to put proper emphasis on all the components of a role model. We're all human. We all have strengths and weaknesses. So let's celebrate achievements and strengths while embracing, and expecting weaknesses and mistakes.

Think how effective former - or current - prisoners, gang leaders and drug addicts can be at helping young people avoid the same mistakes. Dealing with failure - of yourself and of others - is extremely important.

But this need to humanise role models - for ourselves and future generations - goes beyond just accepting that people can turn their lives around.

In interviews, the media often point to my achievements and so called "genius" status. A colleague recently read some glowing coverage of me and commented that the journalist clearly hadn't seen my desk. It's a mess. I also hate washing the dishes, don't know how to deal with social situations when people are crying, can't walk in heels and to this day have no idea how to look after my hair. I don't know how cricket works, can't read or write anything longer than 500 words and, despite my heritage, have never set foot in Africa.

So can we agree there's no monopoly? We're all members of the role model club. Club activities involve seeking out ways to improve others with your stories and actions and adding yourself to a rich diversity of available role models for others - in particular the next generation. Share your experiences doing what you do, achieving what you've achieved, overcoming what you've overcome.

In return, you can look to fellow club members that you see enough of yourself in. Anyone who you can identify and then realistically aim to achieve what they've achieved. And if there's no-one you can see, then concentrate on being that first someone for others to aim at.

Assume your place in the role model club.

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