What is a role model?

Understanding the specific ways in which role modelling impacts individuals will provide insight into how career practitioners and teachers can increase their positive influence as role models for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

A role model is a person who an individual identifies with in some way to:

  • gain inspiration and motivation, and/or
  • emulate certain attributes of the role model.

Several theories reinforce the effects and processes of role modelling. Motivation theory affirms that an inspiring role model can provide incentive to aspire to greater achievements, provide direction, and encourage effort and persistence for the attainment of goals. Social learning theory states that one learns by observing other people’s behaviours, attitudes and the outcomes of those behaviours. Through observation one decides which part of those behaviours to reproduce. Where a role model represents the outcomes that are valued, an individual is more likely to emulate his/her attributes, such as: values, style, attitudes, skills, thoughts and behaviours. Identification theory emphasises that individuals are attracted to each other based on some perceived similarity, therefore role models can help individuals develop their self-concept. Role models can be historical, cultural, celebrity, fictional, personal (family, peers) or professional. (McCullough, 2013).

Whether a person chooses a positive role model or a detrimental role model depends on the mindset they adopt towards achieving goals. (Lochwood, Jordan & Kunda, 2002). For example, young people will choose positive role models if they have a growth mindset, that is, they see themselves as active and successful learners who strive to be their best selves. They will therefore be drawn to role models who exemplify these qualities and who can provide them with motivation and strategies to accomplish their goals and develop a strong sense of self-worth.

Young people with a prevention mindset have a deep fear of failure and are inclined to take actions to avoid failure and negative outcomes. Therefore, they gravitate towards role models who can provide them with preventative strategies. For example, cheating in an exam, or escaping from pressure through drugs or alcohol. It is imperative therefore that young people are supported to develop a growth mindset early on.

Impact of role models in career development

Role models who can convey why their work matters, who demonstrate passion for their work and who can show that education and employment opportunities exist, can inspire others to aim for and accomplish their career aspirations.

Developing aspirations is very important for young people as it encourages greater engagement at school and when transitioning to work and further study. (Homel & Ryan, 2014). The report ‘Indigenous Aspirations’ (Mission Australia, 2014) revealed that where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students perceived a lack of local education, training and employment opportunities, their aspirations were lower than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. Aspirations were higher and closer to those of non-Indigenous students when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students felt that there were local opportunities. This highlights the added importance of connecting with a role model who is equipped with current and accurate career information and resources so that the aspirations of young people or adult career seekers can become real, concrete and achievable.

McCullough (2013) notes that role models influence career development when they:

  • demonstrate high levels of performance
  • reflect the individual’s current career goals and self-concept
  • provide opportunities to learn new skills and competencies
  • demonstrate that obtaining outstanding career achievement is possible
  • demonstrate persistence in the face of challenges
  • inspire people to dream of higher hopes than they would have imagined otherwise
  • encourage strategies and actions towards achieving desired career goals
  • provide opportunities for greater self-knowledge.

Role models can be an effective way to generate awareness, interest and a desire to change. A positive example set by one teacher, a family, a friend or coach can create a domino effect in a community. This is particularly effective in collectivist cultures, therefore connecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander career seekers to successful role models is essential to sustaining long term opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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© 2014/2015 Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA). The More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (MATSITI) was initiated by the Commonwealth Government and funded for a four-year period 2011-2015. Within this initiative, the Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA) managed the project; Follow My Lead: Careers in Teaching.