Being bold for change

Being bold for change

We have had an extraordinary fortnight of celebrating women: International Women’s Day last week, and the first national Dads4Daughters day this week – both of which are dedicated to furthering gender equality.  

Last Friday we invited one of our recently appointed school governors, Sarah Squire, into school as the guest at one of our regular Ladies Who Lunch sessions in which a group of Sixth Form students hear from a range of impressive guests about their careers and experiences. The girls enjoyed hearing about how Sarah lived and worked in many different countries as a distinguished diplomat, including Washington and Israel, and Estonia where she was the British Ambassador.

Sarah also addressed the students in Friday’s assembly and focused attention on the challenge set by the United Nations for this year’s International Women’s Day: #BeBoldForChange. She reflected on some of her own career-related experiences of having done just that. In her early twenties Sarah joined the diplomatic service well aware of the rule that women were not permitted to continue working for the service once they were married. Career-focused at the time, Sarah didn’t let that fact stop her from pursuing her ambition. Later on at around the time she married, that rule was changed: Sarah spoke about breaking the mould because she was, therefore, one of the first married female diplomats. Her husband also worked for the service and so together they were also unusual, being one of the earliest married couples to navigate the system. There was no precedent for whether married couples could be stationed together, or whether they could both receive ‘foreign working allowance’, or be managed within the same team. When the time came to have children, Sarah was one of the first diplomats to experience the service’s attitude to maternity leave and pay.

Sarah encouraged the girls to:

“think hard with humility about all that is still to be done in our own society; we enjoy the benefits of huge changes that have taken place, fought for at much cost. But the process of achieving full equality between men and women is still far from finished.”

As one of the first female diplomats to challenge the status quo, simply by being in her role at that moment of significant change, she blazed the trail and made it that bit easier for those who would follow in her footsteps:

“because I was one of the first to do this it seemed that all along the way my situation was raising new hurdles to cross, new headaches for the poor people in the Foreign Office staff department to sort out!”

She has clearly been part of affecting change in her particular situation.

The #BeBoldForChange challenge encourages each of us to go out and make real change in our particular contexts. Sarah explained to the girls that:

“we are all creating the environment of respect between the sexes, in what we do, how we choose to live our lives, and through the encouragement we give to other people, to other girls and women”.

As an unconfident teenager, Sarah was encouraged by her own Headmistress to stretch herself and to take on things which were a bit beyond her comfort zone, things which she could have felt she couldn’t really manage. It was useful for our students to remember the human roots of impressive figures like Sarah: so many of the people whom we admire were not always confident, and didn’t always believe themselves to be capable of such accomplishments but through encouragement, self-belief is nurtured and people realise that they can be powerful. It is exactly by being bold and seeing change happen that people start to believe that they are really able to make a difference.

This week we joined many other GSA member schools to host a Dads4Daughters event – in our case it was our first of what we hope will be many successful occasions.  40 day girls and boarders from Year 10 to Upper Sixth were accompanied by some of the significant men in their lives (fathers, uncles, rowing coaches, and form tutors) to discuss workplace gender bias.

I read an article in last week’s International Women’s Day-inspired ‘Women in Business’ supplement in The Week which stated: “society and the economy gain if the full potential in professional women is unlocked”. It is this idea of potential that resonates with us at this school. We value enormously the role that women play in those jobs that are perceived to have been traditionally women’s roles – from being the first educator of their own children, or nursing the sick, or teaching! But we equally value the contribution that women can make in those roles that were once thought of as traditionally male – perhaps as astronauts, or surgeons, or football players!

Each individual will be uniquely talented and inspired in different ways – and what is important is that they are encouraged and equipped to pursue whatever ambition they choose for themselves. This is where implicit gender bias comes to the fore; when children shy away from one subject or sport or hobby because of an assumed idea that it isn’t appropriate for them, as a girl or boy, to pursue it. This is what we work hard to eliminate while our students are at this school, but when they enter the workplace they are likely to encounter some people who might assume that they are happy to take an administrative role in a meeting, simply because they are female. Or they might meet people who do not have confidence in their professional opinion as a doctor, preferring instead to be diagnosed by a man. There will undoubtedly be some level of ‘banter’ culture which is likely to trivialise women’s achievements or professional nature.

Emmanuella N., a Year 11 boarder from Nigeria who attended the Dads4Daughters evening with her uncle, explained the role that fathers are already playing so effectively:

“I want to be a chemical engineer. My dad is an electrical engineer, and he has shown me what it takes and told me that I can achieve it, so I think as much as positive female role models are important, fathers are role models too. He has encouraged me that I can succeed.”

Ella B., Lower Sixth day student who attended with her father commented:

“In recent years things have been solved by law. Now it’s attitudinal change that needs to happen, and this is more effective if it starts earlier in life – which is why this event is so important. Real change will take a long time to take effect.”

These are just two of the many positive comments made by students on the evening – students who are also fired up to be bold for change – and to break the mould.

Concluding our Dads4Daughters event, guest of honour and Chair of our panel, Dame Sandra Dawson, explained that her own children have helped her to realise some of her own areas of unconscious bias, “which is why events such as this are so essential, because hearing from these young women will help us all to further gender equality.” I couldn’t agree more and I would encourage all of us as teachers and parents to recognise and create opportunities to give our girls a real platform to have a voice.

I was fortunate to hear from another extraordinary young woman of a similar age to the students who attended our Dadds4Daughters event and who also credits her father for giving her the ambition and drive to pursue equality in terms of access to education: Malala Yousafzai. The final keynote speaker at an ASCL conference that I attended this week, Malala spoke fluently, graciously, thoughtfully and calmly, with humility and warmth and without notes: she certainly has wisdom beyond her years. Her messages were several but what particularly resonated with me was her desire for teachers to encourage and support students to find their own voice and to listen seriously to young children as well as older ones and girls just as much as boys. She urged teachers and parents to appreciate young people’s ideas, which would be the bedrock in allowing them to develop their own voices confidently.

Role models in our own school’s history shared this outlook; whether the recently canonised Mother Teresa who attended a Mary Ward school as a child, or our foundress Mary Ward herself (who will perhaps one day also be canonised) who was a poster girl 400 years ago for women’s liberation and emancipation. Both women certainly broke the mould, found their voices, and made sure to #BeBoldForChange throughout their lives. That is my wish for our students.