Sadly feminism and gender equality are still topical issues in 2017. Equality is not a given and certainly not what the suffragettes would have hoped for over 100 years ago when many sacrificed their lives for the cause. Yes, we have the vote, and we’re definitely moving in the right direction, but we’re travelling too slowly and it is not always a linear progression with many stop-starts along the way.
Even when women reach the top of their chosen profession, which in certain industries is still extremely rare (only 10% of consultants and top surgeons are women, and there are ten times more men than women in partnership positions in top law firms), our pay may still be less than our male counterparts and women are still judged more on their appearance than their ability. Remember the headlines and pics of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs! Feminism and gender equality are still hotly contested issues – I hear they even sparked an argument in the most unlikely of places, ITV 2’s Love Island!
With this in mind, ‘Is 2017 a good time to be a girl?’ was the question underpinning this year’s conference of 26 schools and academies within the Girls Day School Trust, GDST, the world’s most prestigious organisation specialising in girls’ education. Together we have over 3,770 years collective experience educating girls in schools across the UK, one of which is our own, Newcastle High School for Girls in Jesmond.
This year’s theme prompted passionate speeches and challenging views on the state of the nation as far as girls are concerned in 21st century Britain. The conference heard rallying cries for girls to be encouraged to leap before they look; take challenges and not be cowed by social and media commentary on what a successful woman looks like and how they should behave.
The message came through loud and clear and hit the national headlines; 2017 is a good time to be a girl, but on our terms and not those socially stereotyped for us. Cheryl Giovannoni, Chief Executive of the GDST argued that girls are being sold a duff line by social commentators, popular culture and the media. She argued that girls are far stronger, more resilient, opinionated and ‘feisty’ than they are ever given credit for. They are however swimming against the tide of a popular culture in which women are offered ‘bit parts’, supporting roles, even in the story of their own lives. Male actors get the lion’s share of speech and screen time in most blockbuster films even when the main protagonists and storylines involve female characters. Sadly and certainly shockingly, we are living in a culture in which young female parliamentary candidates can be asked to strip for votes on their Facebook pages!
We know that within our all girls environment we are fortunate to be setting the agenda. Educating girls is our raison d’etre, we can and do empower girls to achieve and be the very best they can be. And, we get results. Girls outperform boys at GCSE and A Level and more girls than boys enter University. Our next challenge is to ensure that they go on to be just as successful in business, industry and in whatever workplace they choose.
During the conference, we heard from Helena Morrissey, CBE and founder of the 30% Club, a campaign launched to get a minimum of 30% of women on FTSE-100 boards – a figure that currently stands at 27%. She talked about the challenges faced by women entering the world of work. She warned that for many girls one of the biggest hurdles is coping in an environment that is not fully egalitarian, or based on meritocracy. This is what we have to deliberately and specifically prepare girls to counter and cope with.
Helena gave valuable insights, shaped by her vast experience in banking and finance – work is not like passing exams. It is not enough to work in the traditional way, getting your head down and waiting to be recognised, girls get great exam results doing it this way, but the technique does not work in a business context.
As a mother of nine, six girls and three boys, she called for educators and parents to work together to equip girls with resilience and determination and to teach them how to work in new ways to achieve, especially in male dominated environments. Career progression is a labyrinth not a ladder, she warned, and girls in particular need to be given the tools to navigate the maze.
In building resilience she called on the GDST to help girls accept failure knowing that to get where they want to be, they will inevitably face it along the way. Building girls’ confidence was another major target together with challenging self-doubt and breaking down the ‘Wall of Worry’ that hampers progress. It is as much about personal change as social.
The new girls’ working mantra has to be seize opportunities, take risks and demand a seat at the table…don’t wait to be asked. Leap before you look!
Perhaps most importantly, the conference urged girls to use their position and privilege to help each other along the way. The GDST alumnae are a formidable group of women and girls must be encouraged to work with and support the Old Girls’ Network for their benefit and others. It is crucial that when they reach the top they remember to send the elevator back down for other women. Madeleine Albright the US senator is famously quoted as saying that if they don’t there will be a special place in hell devoted to them.
The final call from the conference was for delegates to rewrite the advice books on educating girls and not rely on male so-called experts who paint a rather bleak picture of the world with girls as victims. 2017 IS a good time to be a girl and we have an unprecedented opportunity to make a massive leap towards equality. Let’s grab it with both hands for ourselves and our daughters.