Over the last few weeks there have been a number of events that have focused on the idea of the role model. The Gutsy Welsh Women event featuring Hilary and Chelsea Clinton’s latest book brought together a small number of prominent women to discuss their own experiences and the need for role models (among other things). In previous weeks I also attended two excellent events organised by students as part of the Black History Month, both of which focused on the value of role models for students from within the BAME community.
When I was at Birmingham I was part of an LGBTQ mentoring programme for students in which colleagues from around the West Midlands gave of their time to mentor LGBTQ students around the transition from University to the workplace. The feedback we had from the students was that it was just as much the fact that so many individuals from very different workplaces and sectors across the region were able to stand up and present themselves as role models, as it was the specific experience of mentoring that was ultimately inspiring for them. It was also clear that it was the variety of potential role models, at different levels within the organisations and having taken very different career paths that made the whole experience so interesting and inspirational.
Mentoring was also a key theme within the talk by Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna in the School of Engineering, organised by the student BAME community within the College. Not all role models are mentors, but many do take this role and give of their time to support others in doing this invaluable role. However, what Professor Ogbonna was emphasising was the importance for those being mentored to find the right person, to establish a good relationship and to know how to use that mentoring context for the best outcome. He was also stressing that this was a two way process and highlighted a point that I have also found, that the mentor is often just as impressed and inspired by those that they mentor as the mentees are of their mentors.
The other Black History Month event, a panel discussion on the issue of adversity, organised by a full time officer from our students union, picked up a number of points that were also part of the Gutsy Women event.
The first of these was the emphasis on adversity. The panellists in both cases were asked to outline how they coped with adversity and barriers to their careers and public lives. There appeared in both cases something of a reluctance to talk about adversity or barriers. The speakers wanted to focus on the positives, and while it is clear that all the women on the Gusty Welsh Women panel, and all those on the BAME coping with adversity panel had very inspiring stories to tell about the oppression they had faced and the strategies they had used to overcome it, this was not the real point that they wanted to make. It was what had been achieved, and those who helped them achieve it that they felt should be emphasised, not the barriers that they faced.
Last Wednesday I attended the Richard Burton Lecture in the Great Hall, given by Rhian Samuel, a welsh composer who started her career in the second half of previous century. She talked about her life as a woman composer and commented that after meeting another woman composer while at University, it was then almost thirty years before she met another one. Music, and particularly composing, was clearly a male dominated profession, and she offered a number of appalling examples of the comments and behaviours that she had to endure. It was inspiring, and clear moved the audience, but it also begged the question; what needed (and still needs) to be changed?
Both the Black History Month panel and the Gutsy Welsh Women panel took this question seriously and those speaking on the panels noted that an emphasis on adversity and barriers, and more specifically an emphasis on them as individuals overcoming adversity, placed too much focus on those who had succeeded, despite the barriers, and not enough on the structural issues underlying the oppression of women, or BAME people. This was also a point raised by questions to Professor Ogbonna. By placing the emphasis on individuals the wider structural questions often get ignored. What is more, by emphasising the role model, the impression can be given that it is for those from oppressed groups to fight for their own identity and rights, rather than the responsibility for the whole of society to recognise the structural elements of oppression and fight to transform our systems.
Having said that, role models are still essential. We all need people, who look and sound like us, to look up to, to admire and to be inspired by. Such people do not even have to look and sound like us at all times, and I have clearly been inspired by the many people I have listened to over the last month, whether from the BAME community, or the Gutsy Welsh Women.