Flying the flag on International Day of the Girl – and every day

Flying the flag on International Day of the Girl – and every day

As many readers will already be aware, Wednesday 11 October 2017 was International Day of the Girl. This week I came across three articles which reinforced why it’s important to mark International Day of the Girl each year.

The first article raised the important point that if we want girls to grow up without being influenced by stereotypes, then we need to consider stereotypes that are still prominent in children’s textbooks around the world. Another, Educating girls: the key to tackling global poverty, highlighted the positive global impact girls are able to make, especially once they have received an education, not only to their own lives but to their communities, and the world. The third article reported that the number of girls in education around the world has actually fallen for the first time in 10 years, which President and CEO of The ONE Campaign, Gayle Smith, describes as “a global crisis that perpetuates poverty”. She explains that:

“over 130 million girls are still out of school – that’s over 130 million potential engineers, entrepreneurs, teachers and politicians whose leadership the world is missing out on.”

So there is still much to be done and in fact we need to continue to fly the flag each day of the year in support of women’s education across the world, to keep girls’ education on the global agenda. One way I would encourage everyone to do this is by signing a pledge devised by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) – a US-based association similar to the Girls’ Schools Association – to #StandUpSpeakUp for girls’ education.

We play our part in a number ways – from our recent commitment to support the Congregation of Jesus (CJ) sisters in a mission to build a Mary Ward secondary school in Mbizo, Kwekwe, through fundraising – to two events on International Day of the Girl itself, on Wednesday, dedicated to inspiring girls closer to home.

We know that in the UK accessing an education is much more possible than in other parts of the world, but that doesn’t mean that there is not more to be done to ensure that the education girls do receive does its job effectively. We need to work to guarantee that girls across the country are able to grow up to be not only educated, but inspired and empowered to pursue any ambition that they feel called to.

Some of you might have noticed from my vlog that I was filmed in a different setting this week. I was at the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, where St Mary’s School, Cambridge hosted our fifth STEM Girl Power conference – this year on the theme of STEM solutions towards a sustainable world. The day is put on for students from 16 Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) schools from the East region and other local maintained schools. The objective of the conference is to galvanise the girls to think boldly and creatively about future options in STEM.

We know that there is a huge shortage of engineers and science-related professionals in the UK and we also know that young women are brilliantly flexible, creative, and are ethical thinkers who are therefore absolutely perfectly placed to take on the global challenges, as set out in the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Attendees heard from an inspirational line up of women, not least Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, who gave the keynote address, titled ‘Can science solve the world’s problems?’.

Dame Barbara spoke about her background in various science-based roles, from management positions in the NHS to working as CEO of Oxfam GB. She shared examples of the many ways in which her STEM-based education enabled her to "save the world" in these different roles, from supporting teams in West Africa in the fight against river blindness (which she emphasised is "one of the most successful medical achievements in modern times"), to her role at Oxfam, keeping enthusiastic campaigners in check, and challenging evidence before it was shared in the media, explaining that "science helps to make sure you get it right". Dame Barbara also highlighted that girls should find out what they really love, encouraging them that “when you question 'are they really paying me to do this?', you know you've found the right job for you!”.

The rest of the day centred around empowering young women to consider STEM subjects and not to be put off by any stereotypes that they may encounter. Katie Hannaford, Software Engineer at Aveva, described her pathway to becoming a programmer, explaining that when she was choosing her GCSE subjects she wasn't aware of any stereotypes that might suggest subjects were more suited to boys, or others to girls. She said, however, that as she became more aware of gender stereotypes she has “made a real conscious choice to ignore them when making decisions about the future".

Other speakers included marine ecologists and engineers, astronomers and programmers, entrepreneurs and environmental sustainability consultants, each telling their story about being a woman in science. Dr Lisa H Butler, Director of Clinical Development at MedImmune, spoke about her decision to set up her own business after having children, in order to work more flexibly and to carry on her research around potentially life-saving drugs. Having been discouraged – told that it isn’t possible to run clinical trials part time – she encouraged the girls by saying “you can; you can do what you want!”. She explained:

“women don't have to be constrained; we are only limited by those constraints we impose on ourselves. If you have an interest, motivation, or a passion; follow it.’’

Across Cambridge at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, another group of students joined in with girls from other GSA schools – focusing not on STEM subjects, but on the humanities. Newnham College hosted a Wikipedia edit-athon, ‘to make the Internet less sexist’ as part of International Day of the Girl. Wikipedia is the seventh most visited website in the world – but only 15 percent of Wikipedia editors are women and fewer than 17 percent of notable profiles are of women. Anyone can edit Wikipedia and so Newnham College invited students to nominate an eminent woman and add to their profile, or to update an existing profile with additional information, in order to address this imbalance and inaccurate representation of both historical, and current pioneering and inspiring women. The girls were given a training session on how to edit Wikipedia, and supported as they began to create new profiles and add to existing profiles, and I was fascinated to learn that one of our groups of students decided to create a profile about me – I wait with bated breath to see what they might have written!

While we are in a fortunate position to be able to place a special emphasis on girls’ education on International Day of the Girl through events like this – and many other conversations about gender stereotypes and the pursuit of equality in form time and assemblies during the day – we are not complacent. We recognise the need to keep flying the flag, every day of the year, in order to bring about significant change and keep girls’ education on the global agenda.