, Salem, MA


August 17, 2013

Let's not inflate the importance of role models

Methinks there is perhaps just a bit too much ado about role models these days. Have you noticed the recent matter on the importance of role models?

I have two issues with it. The first is that role models are written about as if no one can do anything significant or become anyone of substance absent an appropriate and reliable role model. This is simply not true.

Let’s start with what online manual WikiHow says: “Role models are important. They help us become the person we want to be and inspire us to make a difference. Choosing wisely means that you are influenced correctly and will help you be the best person you can be. To be like someone, you have to work hard.”

This passage is emblematic of how the media get it wrong on role models. I read it and the following questions come to mind: Are they really that important? Is it impossible to become successful without following a role model? Do all up-and-comers want to become exactly like their role models?

I’ve spent my entire career covering the evolution of women’s roles in American society. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read that women could not succeed without role models in their chosen fields. It would be impossible, for example, for young girls to dream of becoming astronauts until Sally Ride showed them how.

I knew I wanted to be a network TV correspondent from the time I was in high school. Women were few and far between in those jobs in the 1970s when I graduated with a master’s in journalism, yet it never occurred to me that I could not get there for lack of role models.

I didn’t need a woman ahead of me to show me it could be done. In my mid-20s, I managed to land a job as a correspondent in the Atlanta bureau of NBC News. I was keenly aware the field was fraught with sexism, but I did not get the job as a result of following in some role model’s footsteps.

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