This year’s International Day of the Girl had the theme ‘The Power of the Adolescent Girl: Vision for 2030’.
In June over 300 female students aged 12-17 from schools in Norwich and from other Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) schools across the UK gathered together for our Inspiring Females Summit at OPEN, Norwich. They were asked if now is a good time to be a young woman? I will reveal their answer at the end…!
Let’s spool back a bit. Why do we still need to ask this question? Some of the girls gathered wanted to know. We need to ask because of the reality that women are still underrepresented on boards, and in many sectors including STEM. Is the latter any surprise when fewer than one per cent of all Physics A Level entries are from girls, and only 10 per cent study Computing A Level?
We believe we have to catch girls young, in fact, the younger the better. Last year a US based study published research findings that girls as young as six have formed self-limiting beliefs that it is easier to associate boys with being brilliant. And there are issues at the other end of the scale too: whilst females are well represented in quotas of academic staff (49 per cent), this drops to only 24 oer cent being professors. This tail-off is well documented, but not something girls necessarily know about.
We feel it would be remiss not to share some of the challenges young women may face in the future, not to politicise them or alarm them, but to arm them with knowledge and to give them skills so that they can thereby become empowered. Power is something which is almost palpable in our Inspiring Females events, and experienced by both the girls and the older females we invite (and even by the men we have so far involved!). We believe we are helping to create a movement for change. So here are my tips for accelerating this movement, from my experience working with young women.
Start with authentic voices. Authenticity is really important in any Inspiring Females event that we run. The programme is shaped by a collective of girls, who debate at length what they and their peers most need, who they want to connect with, and how they want the day to run- even down to the soundtrack. We only invite guests (we call them VIFs, Very Important Females) who we know will be authentic themselves, and open. If we create a platform where women can talk freely, where their voices are truly theirs, we create a powerful trust between women that crosses any generational divide.
Encourage girls and women to collaborate. Everyone knows the famous Madeleine Albright quotation about places in hell for women who don’t support other women. We think this should start young, to catch girls during their development into young women. Our VIFs pass on pearls of wisdom, honestly sharing their journeys, the routes, diversions and bumps in the road, and their reflections on how they could have ‘got there’ more efficiently.
Give girls the skills to network. Men have been primed to do this for ages. I remember when at university, a male friend educated at an expensive boys’ school explained his motivation to attend a potentially dull event as ‘networking’. I didn’t even know then what networking was. And if you don’t know what it is, you can’t do it well. We build networking into all of our events, and help the more tentative to do this in a variety of ways, from using themed ‘bingo’ cards to facilitate introductions. We also encourage our VIFs to network with the girls throughout.
Create opportunities and provide spaces for young women to practise being confident. We believe that confidence is something that can be acquired by everyone. We expect every girl to ‘lean in’, to ask questions, to believe that she has something unique to contribute, encouraging girls to share their thoughts via social media apps such as Snapchat, or in video booths. If we create the right conditions, confidence can be infectious.
As successful adults, go back and inspire girls at your school or in your local area. So many women we work with say ‘I wish we had known about these things at school’, and become spirited with a sense of excitement about the future. Over the last year, we have had 80 amazing women from all walks of life join our project to do just this, with even more contacting us directly to volunteer their time and experience to support the young women of Norfolk and beyond. If girls can’t see it, they can’t be it!
As I write this, we have just this morning held at Norwich High School a live radio broadcast from BBC Norfolk about Women in the Arts. The 330 girls in attendance were asked to shout out if they believed there was equality in the workplace. I am afraid there was a deafening silence (our girls are not shy in coming forwards!) However, flip the question: is it a good time to be a young woman? Girls in the summer answered a resounding ‘yes!’
There are definitely winds of change blowing. Now is the time to collaborate, to harness the enormous energy ‘Inspiring Females’ has tapped into and unleashed in young women. Let’s activate that vision for 2030. Go forth and inspire!
About the author:
Kirsty von Malaisé was educated at the Purcell School of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and is a former Young Musician of the Year finalist. An English graduate from Christ’s College, Cambridge, Kirsty headed up English departments in both the state and independent sector. She has been Headmistress of Norwich High School for girls GDST since 2015.
Kirsty is co-founder of Inspiring Females, a unique programme of events designed to prepare young women for their futures, to create platforms to explore their questions and to represent their authentic voices.