Instead of the usual morning lessons, everyone in the pre GCSE year group at Newcastle High School for Girls is given the task of running a board meeting with some tricky moral decisions to make.  The girls work in groups, each representing a team of board members of a fictitious company with a specific scenario and decisions to make. Each girl is given a particular role to play as a member of the company’s board, such as Chief Executive, Finance Director, Marketing Director, non-Executive Director, together with a specially printed card with their job role, a photo, personal qualities and past experience. This innovative simulation event tailored especially for schools was initiated by Headmistress, Hilary French, and designed by Sheila Stokes White, an expert and mentor in organisation development and leadership, based in Morpeth but with clients nationwide.

The event started with an introductory session to get the girls to think about their role as board members, and the wide range of skills and qualities required – presentation skills, diplomacy, assertiveness, negotiation, listening as well as the ability to exercise judgement, chair a meeting, and reach a compromise solution. The board meetings then got underway under the leadership of the Chairman.

One group simulated being the Board of a pharmaceutical company with a particular business problem to resolve:  whether or not to continue testing cosmetic products on animals.  To make things more complicated, in the middle of the meeting, a newsflash was introduced saying that an undercover journalist from a national newspaper had been working inside one of the research laboratories, so that the board had to agree an emergency plan on how they were either going to defend their activities, or alter the way in which they develop their products.

The aim of the exercise was to provide an insight into how businesses work, encourage the girls to aspire to these leadership roles and emphasise the importance of ethical governance. School Headmistress, Hilary French, said:   “our mission as a girls’ school is to encourage our girls to have high aspirations and help them develop their potential in a truly rounded sense, to help each of them to be the best they can possibly be. This includes preparing for the world of work and developing confidence and leadership qualities. These girls are our board directors of the future, and there is still a major disparity between the representation of men and women in the boardroom and in non-Executive Director positions”.

In 2011, Lord Davies undertook an independent review of women on boards on behalf of the Government and found that nearly half of all FTSE 250 companies do not have a woman in the boardroom, and that “radical changes are needed in the mindset of the business community if we are to implement the scale of change that is needed.”  New government data published earlier this month showed that 6 out of 10 of Britain’s largest companies are still failing to hit the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) target, set during Lord Davies’ review of women on boards, for 25% of FTSE 100 directors to be female by next year.

The idea of the simulation event came from a lunchtime meeting of the North East women’s group of the Institute of Directors, which was initiated by Sheila Stokes White, who, as an expert and mentor in organisational change and a member of the IOD North East Committee felt it might encourage female members of the IOD to become more active members, and Hilary French, Headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls. The lunch was hosted by Newcastle High with some Sixth formers from the School attending. ”We were taken by surprise by the Sixth formers’ level of interest in business and how it works” explained Sheila Stokes White.  She felt that work which she had done in organisations could be adapted “and this led to us creating material designed specifically for teenagers and school”.

A group of seven girls from the year group was then chosen to help develop the material for the event, together with support from teachers and Ms Stokes White. This group has now been working together for almost a year to develop the School’s own set of materials suitable for fifteen year olds. This including printed cards for the role play with names photos, job roles, personal qualities and previous experience and specific scenarios for a pharmaceutical company and a football club.

Hannah Rees-Middleton, one of the girls involved in developing the materials said “I was so happy with how it worked, and was surprised that my classmates understood it, and really got into it”.  She added “This type of exercise is really important to help us understand what happens in business, and in the boardroom. It’s such an interesting job, you get to share your opinions with other colleagues and learn how to make decisions and compromises as a group”.

Sarah Vineberg, another girl in the group said “even though my parents are both in business, I never really get the chance to talk to them about their work at home, either to ask what happens in a board meeting, or to find out what all the different roles are and what they do. It’s particularly important for girls like us to learn about this, so we can try to redress the imbalance of women boardroom members, and get rid of the subconscious stereotypes which still exist of the man coming home with a briefcase and the woman cooking the dinner”.

Sheila Stokes White, expressed her delight at how well the first pilot event had worked, and how much the girls had got out of the experience: “It was fascinating to watch the girls working, they divided into different types: some struggled a little to get the hang of the exercise; others found it difficult to act in role and keep to character, but what amazed me most was that some of the Chairmen, leading the board meetings, were absolutely outstanding. They were complete naturals, going round the table asking views of different members, summing up, directing the group towards a decision – I was staggered and would hire them tomorrow!”

The School plans to hold more of these simulated boardroom events and to share the material with its sister schools in the Girls’ Day School Trust. It is also investigating whether some of the girls involved could attend an actual board meeting, to compare the simulated experience to a ‘real life’ situation, as well as looking at ways to work collaboratively with other schools in Newcastle and the NE on further initiatives like this.

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