How Do You Provide Intentional Role Modeling?

Role models can overcome the negative effects of stereotypes by increasing self-ratings and by inspiring and motivating achievement. They may even shape opinions. For example, one study showed that videotaped role models improved girls’ attitudes toward computer science. These positive effects are the reason speaker programs invite successful women and members of other underrepresented groups, and why textbooks and websites highlight the achievements of diverse professionals. But effective role modeling may require more than simply parading a successful person before an audience. Inciting observers to compare themselves with and adopt a role model as a “possible self” requires communicating the role model’s relevance to the observer’s life and goals and the attainability of her successes for the observer. Intentional role models consciously convey this information to observers.


Observers are most likely to compare themselves with someone they perceive as similar both demographically and in ability-related performance, so intentional role models communicate information about their own background, experiences, and concerns. Intentional role modeling involves the following:

  • Explaining what makes your role relevant to your audience.
  • Describing your personal history and highlighting the elements that your observers are likely to share.
  • Speaking about your strengths and weaknesses and how they relate to your expertise and experiences.
  • Helping observers see how they could attain the position you are modeling, and describing barriers you encountered and how you overcame them. (A role is perceived as attainable only if the observer believes they have control over their future performance and could realistically reach their goal.)

Research cautions that role modeling’s positive effects are not always obtained. For example, having more women faculty does not reliably increase enrollment of women students in an academic program. A large study showed that women graduate students did not want to become like women faculty members whose lifestyle included a poor work-life balance. Another undesirable outcome – reduced self-confidence – can result from presenting role models whose success seems unattainable to the observer.




Role models are people who exemplify to an observer the values, attitudes, and behaviors that are associated with a position. By describing the values, knowledge, expertise, strategies, and experiences that got them to their position, role models make it possible for observers to imagine themselves in a similar role.

Role modeling is not the same as mentoring, although it is typically an element of mentoring (intentional or not). This connection often leads to confusing role modeling with mentoring. But role modeling is less interactive than mentoring, which involves interpersonal communication and is usually in the context of an ongoing relationship. In contrast, role modeling involves only demonstrating that a particular status is possible to achieve and how it can be achieved. Women’s role models may be more effective if they are the same sex (although cross-sex mentoring can be effective).

Observers can be more or less open to being influenced, so role modeling is not always effective. Effectiveness can be maximized by intentionally demonstrating how relevant and attainable a role is, and by employing appropriate types of motivation. But overdoing it can have a negative effect.

Role models motivate in a positive or negative fashion by exemplifying someone an observer will want to emulate (or not). The type of motivation that is most effective depends on the characteristics of the observer.


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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon