Fiona Murden is a Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, public speaker and author of Mirror Thinking: How Role Models Make Us Human.
I’m so delighted to be working with Future First because I believe, together, we are at a point of potentially making a huge difference for so many young people.
My hope is that we can create a tipping point in society where the power of role models and alumni is available to every young person to help them challenge and overcome barriers in the way of their route to success. Those barriers can come in different forms, such as gender or background.
What we need is more interconnected networks across generations. We need to ask how the corporate world supports 18-24 year olds, how 18-24 year olds support those aged 14-18 and so on. We also have to support parents and teachers to be the best role models possible. This should just be something that we see as vital to how society operates and it starts with the work Future First is already doing with alumni networks.
It’s wonderful to be working with Future First on two pilot schemes for young people in which we will raise awareness of the importance of role models and explore both what young people look for in mentees and how they can play that role for those younger than themselves.
Previously, the research and science supporting the importance of role models hasn’t been pulled together, all in one place. That was my aim in writing “Mirror Thinking – How Role Models Make Us Humans”. It illuminates research from different disciplines and draws out the importance of aspects which relate to how and why role-modelling is such a critical component of passing on everything from cultural norms through to individual behaviours in humans. Role-modelling helps us not only see a path through life but also to understand ourselves and the tiny nuanced interpretation of other people’s emotions and behaviours.
Mirror Thinking shows that the impact of role models such as alumni is particularly strong on adolescents. This is because something known as the ‘social brain’ is undergoing most development at this stage and they are therefore most receptive to what is going on around them. While boys are prone to more risky behaviour and, in some circumstances, can fall into crime without positive role models, girls can suffer from a shortage of role models in pursuits such as sport and in careers they may believe are possible and open to them.
Belief is so important to overcoming stereotypes and issues such as gender bias in professions. A study carried out by Microsoft found relatable female role models in STEM subjects led to a huge increase in girls pursuing these routes. Young women’s self esteem is arguably more fragile than young men’s, they need to see role models but also need to have belief in themselves bolstered. In fact, it doesn’t stop when they grow up, I see it in female leaders. Women often focus on the reasons they can’t do something while men will focus on the reasons they can, so role models are important throughout our careers.
However, we mustn’t underestimate the importance of getting role modelling right and that is one of the reasons the expertise Future First offers is so important. Some years ago, the UK government launched a mentoring scheme in the North of England which actually led to an increase in crime. This was because it was badly managed and mentors dropped out due to lack of support, leaving the young people involved feeling even more despondent about their futures. Now though, with the science and expertise both pulling together we can make it work for so many more young people.