top of page
  • Writer's pictureKieran Fenby-Hulse

Raising Visibility: Role Modelling Difference

Sophie Blanchard and Firework Display

Keynote Presentation at Vitae Researcher Development International Conference, Birmingham, Sept 2019


I want to start by asking you to close your eyes, to empty your mind, and to think as vividly as you can about someone you would consider a role model. Who is it? What do they look like? Why are they your role model? And with that image firmly planted in your mind, I want to read an extract from the book Stories for Kids who Dare to be Different (Brooks, 2018)

In 1804, a Frenchwoman called Sophie Blanchard became the first female aeronaut in the world. On the ground, Sophie was nervous and shy...In the air, though, she became intrepid. She filled her balloon with fireworks and let them off to the amazement of enthralled crowds...She even embarked on a treacherous balloon journey over the Alps, where frost froze her face and hands...The sky was where she felt most at home…One day in July 1819, crowds gathered at the Tivoli Gardens in Paris. As Sophie's balloon rose, she lit fireworks and dropped them, so they lit up beneath her like shooting stars. All of a sudden, the sky flashed and flames engulfed the balloon….With that, Sophie also became the first woman to die in an aviation accident. She was buried in Paris, under a tombstone carved with the image of her balloon in flames. (p.176)

Sophie Blanchard is absolutely one of my role models- at least in terms of her creativity and courage, less so for her approach to health and safety and risk assessment.


In 2017, Ross English and I undertook a campus climate study to understand the experiences of UK doctoral researchers who identify as LGBTQ (English and Fenby-Hulse 2019). My aim here, though, is not to give an overview of that paper, but to talk to one aspect of the findings: role models. For some of our respondents, a lack of visible LGBTQ+ role models within either their discipline or institution contributed to a perception of academia as lacking when it came to diversity and inclusion. As one respondent said:

I am only aware of one other LGBTQ+ person in my department and it is not something we have ever discussed in the workplace. As such, there is a complete absence of any LGBTQ+ role models for our students, thus perpetuating the notion that to be successful we should blend in.

It has been shown that increased visibility through LGBTQ role model and mentoring programs can positively impact on the professional development of LGBTQ+ individuals as well as postively impact on their health and wellbeing (Bird, Kuhns, & Garofalo, 2012; Colgan, 2012; McAllister, Ahmedani, Harold & Cramer, 2009; Renn, 2010; Schneider & Dimito, 2010). However, our study showed that many LGBTQ doctoral researchers felt that they did not have access to this kind or level of support. And this got me thinking about our expectations and relationships with role models.

The word relationship immediately makes things odd. We rarely meet our role models and they often do not know that we think of them as such. Role modelling is a strange practice, often a one way relationship. Role modelling isn’t mentoring - it’s stalking. It is a messy combination of our hopes and desires in connection to a series of intended and unintended acts performed by the role model. Role model relationships are complex. We can feel disappointed when they don’t live up to our expectations. And we can feel elated when they break the imaginary boundaries we have placed around them.

I have role models...I think. I say "I think" as it's not something that I'm always conscious of. I have role models who are rich and famous such as the defiant Judy Garland, role models who are family such as my sister who always lands on her feet, role models who are professional researchers such as the creative and courageous musicologist Susan McClary, and role models who are entirely fictional, such as Ursula - fearsome and fabulous.


I'm going to talk briefly, though, about a complex and personal example, a role model of mine that may surprise you. Now, I don't remember ever consciously considering Dale Winton a role model, but on the 18th April 2018, on hearing of his untimely death, I felt a pang of intense sadness, tinged with a strange sense of guilt. A reaction I had not felt with other celebrity passings and so I wanted to explore what this was all about. My “relationship” to Dale Winton is complex. He was on mainstream television during my teen years, a camp and fun entertainer defying masculine stereotypes. I enjoyed shows like Supermarket Sweep. It spoke to me – a world of high camp consumerism that, at that point in my life, I had no access to. I didn’t come out until I was 21, my teen years spent mostly denying the fact I was gay.

I was bullied at school, badly. And Dale Winton was the name assigned to me by my bullies. I supposedly looked like him, sounded like him, acted like him. The bullying homophobia I experienced affected my confidence for a long time and affirmed my position as an outsider, as different. I didn't know anyone gay. I had no LGBTQ role models. I didn't want to be gay, to be different. It's no surprise, then, that I felt some resentment towards Dale Winton – it was after all his fault. He was not showing that gay men could fit in and be normal like everyone else. Yet, over time, as I came out and understood my place in the world, as my confidence built and as I began to own my outsider position, something changed. I had changed. Indeed, during my late twenties and thirties, I feared Dale Winton less. Dale Winton was becoming an icon, a role model. He was someone who defied notions of “normal”, he was authentic, someone who didn't change for others, didn’t blend.

Now, of course I never met Dale Winton and he was, of course, oblivious to all of this – and so often is this the case with role models. Being a role model is not a choice that you get to make. It is assigned by some else, sometimes a condition of who you are or what you have done.


While we can’t choose to be a role model, we can choose to act like one by thinking more consciously and critically about our behaviours, values, and histories. In this sense, you can become a role model. As Michelle Obama says in her autobiography, Becoming:

There's a lot I still don't know about America, about life, about what the future might bring. But I do know myself. My father, Fraser, taught me to work hard, laugh often, and keep my word. My mother, Marian, showed me how to think for myself and use my voice. Together, in our cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago, they helped me see the value in our story, in my story, in the larger story of the country. Even when it's not pretty or perfect. Even when it's more real than you want it to be. Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It's something to own.

While I can only aspire to be the first lady of the United States, I am conscious of my ability to influence others and am determined to better the academy in terms of equality and inclusion. In this sense, I tend to follow the definition of role model offered by Stonewall (when I attended their LGBTQ role models training):

a role model is aware of their potential to influence others and intentionally exercises that influence for the purpose of helping to create a more inclusive workplace.

To return to you, to what extent do your role models champion difference or inclusivity? To what extent is your role model different from you? So often our role models present a mirror image of ourselves, albeit one more glamourous and more exciting. But this does little for change and little for championing difference.

And this takes me back to the findings of our study of LGBTQ doctoral researchers. It is absolutely correct that we should work on raising the visibility of LGBTQ+ scholars, where visibility is lacking. It is, however, more important to make difference visible in all its forms - to show that no matter who you are, difference is not only welcomed, but embraced - supported even. Too often our visions of star scientists, eminent researchers, and role models are shaped by sameness – of wanting to be the same, to follow the same path. Sameness is after all comforting.

This, for me, is not the way forward. In developing role models, we should aim to champion those who challenge the status quo, those who are willing to forge new pathways, those willing to set alight a Parisian night sky, no matter the risk.


Bird, J. D. P., Kuhns, L., & Garofalo, R. (2012). The impact of role models on health outcomes for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 50(4), 353-357.

Brooks, B. (2018). Stories for Kids who Dare to be Different: True Tales of Boys and Girls who Stood up and Stood out. London: Quercus.

Colgan, F., & McKearney, A. (2012). Visibility and voice in organizations. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 31(4), 359-378.

English, R. & Fenby-Hulse, K. (2019). Documenting diversity: The experiences of LGBTQ+ doctoral researchers in the UK. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 14, 403-430.

McAllister, C. A., Ahmedani, B. K., Harold, R. D., & Cramer, E. P. (2009). Targeted mentoring: Evaluation of a program. Journal of Social Work Education, 45(1), 89-104.

Obama, M. (2018) Becoming. New York: Viking

Renn, K. A. (2010). LGBT and queer research in higher education: The state and status of the field. Educational Researcher, 39(4), 132-141.

Schneider, M. S., & Dimito, A., (2010). Factors influencing the career and academic choices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(10), 1355-1369.

bottom of page