A few days ago, a brother and sister living in Berlin in Germany, discussed what they wanted to become when they grow up. Mathilda, who is about seven or eight, said she wanted to become a doctor and specialize in treating children, like her mother. “Will you become an engineer like dad?” she asked her one year young brother, Johannes. He was quiet for a while, and then he said he wanted to become a politician and even the German chancellor. He had watched so many TV programmes during the recent election campaign and both his mother and father liked Chancellor Angela Merkel very much.

His sister laughed. “But you are a boy, you cannot be chancellor”, his sister said. “That job is for a woman”, she explained knowingly. “Maybe you can be the husband of the chancellor and become a professor in biology or chemistry, like Angela Merkel’s husband”, she suggested. The young boy wasn’t quite happy with it, because he didn’t really know what he would do then, but he agreed, especially if he could do something that had to do with growing food in the city, he said. It was obvious that the young children had been influenced by role models, and since the German chancellor for the last twelve years has been a woman, Mathilda had only seen a woman in that role in her young life.

In America, Barrack Obama was president till January this year. He was black, or an African-American, as the Americans say, but he was also of European heritage, but that people often forgot since they judged by appearance. Well, in his case, he almost became colourless, especially to children and young people. Yet, many black people realized that he was also one of them, and many old-fashioned whites, could never accept that a man with African heritage could have the land’s highest office. America has not yet had a woman in that office either and that contributed to Hillary Clinton not getting elected after Obama – and they are now stuck with Donald Trump.

In Norway, the current Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, was re-elected after having held the post for the last four years. She resembles Angela Merkel in certain ways; notably being able to forge compromise and collaboration between people who generally may be of different political views. She comes from a lower middle class background but has climbed to the top of the Conservative party through hard work and character. Traditionally, she should have joined a party on the left, because that would suit her social background better. Incidentally, the leader of the social democratic Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, comes from a wealthy background, but chose a party by conviction on the left. Some would say it would be more natural if they had swapped parties, and in the past, a Labour Party leader should be from the lower classes. To have inherited money could reluctantly be acceptable, but not if one had become rich in one’s own lifetime. I admire both politicians, who are great role models. Politically, though, I am on Støre’s left side.

I am glad that we live in a time when it is achievements and performance that decide whom we look up to and admire, not (only) heritage and family background. I put a ‘only’ in parenthesis because we still have a way to go to reach a level playing field, indeed so in Pakistan, where most top politicians have either come from rich backgrounds or from the military – and then, people would joke that if they aren’t rich when they get into office, they will be rich when the leave. Social change and social mobility are often slow processes, but sometimes it happens suddenly and unexpectedly, too, such as when Pakistan twice had a woman Prime Minister in Benazir Bhutto. True, heritage played a role in her case, but it was also through competence, conviction and character, I believe.

A basic factor for social mobility in our time is education. Without education, social mobility becomes difficult. In addition, contacts and to be part of the ‘right’ network is important. It is also important to belong to a culture and environment where one’s opinions, compassion and focus can be shaped. It is important to belong to a ‘flock’, a group, so that we can learn from others and be pulled in when we go astray, and be encouraged when we need that. Everyone needs praise and encouragement, without which we may not get far – probably not even the most individualistic and stubborn inventor or artist. We must learn to encourage those who want to do things differently, too.

Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to Harris Khalique, one of Pakistan’s several forceful writers, presenting his new book of four essays, entitled ‘Crimson Papers: Reflections of Struggle, Suffering and Creativity in Pakistan’ (OUP, Pakistan, 2017). One of the things he said, which I remember, was that Islam is not under threat in Pakistan, as is sometimes claimed. How can it be when those who belong to other religions are just three or four percent? It is a useful reminder, also to Europeans, who have similar claims about Christianity and the traditional secular cultures being under threat. More attention to other faiths and denominations to the all-dominant religion will rather enrich and stimulate faith and spirituality, and those who search and ask questions. The works of particularly gifted Pakistani writers like Harris Khalique, Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, and others, are important for readers at home and abroad. We need intellectual role models who can help us think and contribute ourselves.

Angela Merkel has again done well in elections in Germany, and she has in many ways become the leader of Europe and the West. We will see a woman as head of government in Germany for another four years. But if she should choose to step down half way or so, would the mantle be given to a man or woman? Would the German children Mathilda and Johannes, whom I told you about at the beginning of my article, be bothered about the gender of the next leader? Yes and no; but it would depend more on the personality. Yet, maybe Mathilda would like a woman in the post in future, too, as it seems that often women often do better than men in high posts – at the moment, excluding Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, who for various reasons, is not up to her difficult job of handling the Rohingya crisis very well – not that the military men before her, and with her now, did either.

And in America, when the people vote next time, they may not want an all-white, male president? They may again look for a unique American like Barrack Obama, or a woman with some of Angela Merkel’s best qualities. Role models are not born at the top; they are made on the job. There are many stars behind the rainbow, if given the opportunity they will come out and shine – like Benazir did in Pakistan did, and Angela Merkel does in Germany and beyond.