“But You’re a Man!!!”—Exploring the Role of Identification in Role Model and/or Mentor Relationships

Winter 1993 Masthead


Jonathan Plucker
West Point Post Schools
West Point, NY

Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.

I once told Barbara Kerr that after my gender equity workshops, people often remark, “That was good, but too bad a man to do it.” Dr. Kerr immediately replied. “Ah, and you’re a man. The gender of the messenger isn’t important – it’s that you’re doing it that matters.” As 78% of math and science teachers in the public secondary schools are male, one would hope that they (and others who work with diverse populations) take the advice of Thucydides and Dr. Kerr and try to make a difference in the life of their students, even if their physical characteristics are not the same.

However, this attitude is not shared by all educators. During my preparation for a recent workshop on female participation and performance in science and math, a friend questioned whether I had bothered to get a woman’s point of view. Explicitly, she had merely suggested that my presentation be comprehensive. Implicitly, however, her tone indicated that she was questioning whether the forces of socialization and gender stereotyping that women constantly encounter are beyond a man’s understanding. I began to wonder if a male could be an effective “provider of guidance and awareness” (e.g., communicator, advocate, role model, mentor).

Although her comments were specific with respect to gender equity issues, my friend actually had raised an important, more global question: To what degree should an advocate, role model, or mentor’s physical and intellectual characteristics match that of the person with whom they are working? The answer carries implications for people in a variety of fields, especially those who are attempting to serve as role models and advocates for other underachievers and/or provide equal educational opportunities to other special populations (e.g., learning disabled, high potential, minority). Since no theoretical explanation of role model/mentor identification processes exists in the literature, an exploration of the topic follows.

The central issue appears to be one of identification, as it pertains to locating an individual from whom you can receive advice, guidance, and inspiration. This process is popularly referred to as “finding someone whom you can relate to,” due in part to an attractive physical and/or a personality trait, shared experience, or other characteristic. For example, Charles, a student with learning disabilities, frequently stopped by after school to work with me. I became his mentor and friend, helping him develop his strengths by learning how to transfer his wonderful ideas into real products. Charles’ reactions can be analyzed at two levels: an obvious, visual level, which would involve those characteristics and experiences associated with physical manifestations (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, age); and an internal, less conspicuous level, which deals more with emotions, interests, compassion for the individual, and other, sometimes hidden facets of personality and cognition. At the visual level, Charles had other male teachers that year, so a common gender could not have been the only factor. But at the internal level, our love of thinking and my belief in his abilities (internal level characteristics) was enough to overcome our lack of strong, visual (and some internal) level commonalities. In this way, our relationship, based more upon internal than visual level characteristics, rested upon a strong foundation.

This proposed process is illustrated more formally in Figure 1. Once the process of attempting to find and identify with a provider of guidance or awareness is initiated, the individual conducting the search will ascertain whether potential providers exhibit any visual characteristics with which the individual can identify. If not, the search will continue, unless the provider’s internal characteristics are evident and attractive (the dashed arrow). If the provider has attractive visual characteristics, then an initial, superficial relationship may form while the individual investigates the provider’s internal characteristics. If the provider has attractive internal characteristics, a potentially long-lasting, effective relationship may form. However, a lack of attractive, internal characteristics will cause the individual to restart the identification process. The criteria for determining what constitutes an attractive, internal characteristic in a provider of guidance will vary with each individual, although studies of traits found to be desirable in professionals who work with talented children (Clark, 1983) suggest that several characteristics are generally desirable (i.e., high motivation, enthusiasm, compassion).

Figure Winter 1993 Article 8

Some visual level characteristics co-exist with traits at the internal level that have been shaped by discrimination and stereotyping towards the visual characteristics. For example, my above-mentioned friend questioned whether a man is capable of understanding the forces of socialization and gender stereotyping that women constantly encounter. While I will not argue that some males encounter these same forces (I will save that for another article), the importance of compassion and an informed understanding of socialization forces should not be underestimated. Some of the research cited in Clark (1983) suggests that a hierarchy of internal characteristics may exist (based upon the traits’ attractiveness to the individual), with the affective ranking higher in order of importance than the cognitive traits. In this way, an obvious sense of concern for the individual’s well-being may be more important during this identification process than familiarity with the experience of discrimination and stereotyping. After all, a disgruntled, female scientist talking only of bad experiences would not be the first choice to sit on a panel discussing opportunities for women in science and math, even though she obviously understands the forces of discrimination and socialization that women face.

Thinking back to a more historical example, I remember periods of my childhood when, not unlike other children, I bombarded my parents with cries of “You just don’t understand!” and threatened to run away to the circus and live with the monkeys and clowns (whom I assumed could have understood me better). My parents could have chosen to believe that since they had no experience at raising a child, their attempts to be my advocates and role models were futile. At the visual level, their feelings would have been correct: I did not identify with my parents, choosing to admire other children who were my own age and with whom I had common interests. As I grew up, however, I eventually identified with my parents’ interests at the internal level: Their concern for my well-being (i.e., compassion), my father’s love of science and sports, and my mother’s passion for math and writing. As such, they have had a large influence on my most crucial decisions and, therefore, my life.

Research on the effectiveness of advocates who do not share the physical characteristics of the population with whom they work is scarce. Inferences can be made, however, from studies of people who effectively participate in the effort to increase the participation and performance of women in math and the sciences. For example, Casserly (1979), in a study of high school science and math programs that “attract and hold high proportions of girls” (p. 346), found that AP math and science teachers were excellent recruiters and counselors for both male and female students, without specifying the gender of the teacher. Koballa (1988), in a study of high school females, determined which “communicators” and corresponding attributes were “perceive[d] as highly credible regarding reasons for taking elective physical science courses in high school” (p. 465). While women were identified more frequently as being credible, almost 30% of the credible communicators were adult males. Personal characteristics attributed to the credible communicators showed an emphasis on prestige, trustworthiness, and similar interests and beliefs. Identification due to these attributes would occur at the internal level, so that the gender of the role model would not necessarily have an adverse effect upon recruitment and education of potential achievers. My experiences with counseling young women have been successful because of shared beliefs in their abilities and interests, not because of a common gender.

A potential role model and/or advocate for a special population of underachievers will be most likely to attract the attention of students if they can relate to him or her through some characteristic at the visual level. An effective, long-lasting relationship, however, needs to be rooted at the internal level, where outward, physical appearances, labels, and abilities are less important than personality, interests, and attitudes. While people who share characteristics with students at the visual identification level have been shown to be effective role models, ascertaining that visual identification is necessary and/ or sufficient for successful intervention is a misinterpretation of the research data. For while visual characteristics call attention to a prospective provider of guidance or awareness, identification with his or her internal characteristics ultimately determines the effectiveness of the relationship. For example, male science teachers should be encouraged to actively and enthusiastically recruit female students into taking science and math classes. Once there, a female student may identify with the teachers’ passion for the topic, leading to a reversal of the female underachievement pattern in the quantitative disciplines.

If this proposed model is valid, then certain questions will be raised in the minds of educators: When trying to locate role models, mentors, and advocates for children, to what extent are shared physical characteristics important? Should a preference be given to those individuals with whom the children share physical characteristics or individuals who have attractive internal traits? Are visual characteristics necessary at all? And are there certain situations (e.g., when working with certain populations) when the visual traits of an advocate or role model are not as important when attempting to establish a relationship with children? Persons attempting to locate individuals to work with children as role models and mentors need to answer these questions, among others, in order to initiate effective, long-lasting relationships.

Casserly, P. L. (1979). Helping able young women take math and science seriously in school. In N. Colangelo & R. T. Zaffrann (Eds.), New voices in counseling the gifted (pp. 346-369). Dubuque. IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Clark, H. (1983). Growing up gifted (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.
Koballa, T. R. (1988). Persuading girls to take elective physical science courses in high school: Who are the credible communicators? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 25, 465-478.


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