Girls need role models to be inspired. Role models of successful women, from a diversity of backgrounds, careers and qualifications. And society needs strong female role models in order to break down some of the prejudices, stereotypes and limitations, subtle and not so subtle, that are being fed through the media to our young people, of all genders, about what is acceptable, what is possible and what is normal.
While these role models are essential for young women, they are equally important for young men, because equality of opportunity does not happen simply by encouraging women to realise their potential. It happens because society as a whole is committed to encouraging, nurturing and celebrating talent regardless of gender.
The more tailored education of girls, whether in single-sex schools or in a co-educational environment, is key for the future success of the UK as well as for each individual school and girl. To address that, we need to be understand how girls learn and promote the active and confident participation of girls in all areas of the curriculum. We also need to understand that girls can be blocked, often unintentionally, from learning.
Girls are not unique in their love of active learning, of learning by doing, by discussion and through trial and error. The best girls’ schools know that an education fit for a girl is a very dynamic, discursive education that challenges thought and takes girls beyond their comfort zone.
There is a moment in the life of a girl when they are more receptive to messages about who they can be and what they can be successful at in school and in life beyond, and this, we increasingly understand, happens earlier and earlier in their educational journey.
But what if this happens at a time when they can’t see enough other women or female pupils around them in a diversity of roles? What if this happens at a point when boys dominate the discussion and their opportunities for active learning? What if classroom life is geared toward the way some boys measure their progress and success, by quantity and speed, rather than quality of understanding.
Education is a subtle art and it is best not to oversimplify, but the girls who talk openly about the important moments in their education when they felt that STEM subjects and careers were not for them, talk about having to ‘step back’ because they were not able to participate in the active learning opportunities and the debate frequently and deeply enough. The speed with which boys rush to answer a question or light the Bunsen burner can lead girls at an early stage in their education to believe that they are not as able or capable. Their more measured approach to learning can be interpreted by teachers as a predisposition rather than a lack of opportunity.
In maths and the sciences, it does not take much for a girl to feel that they have not developed the confident foundations of understanding that they seek and they can quickly be made to feel that these subjects are not for them. The result, in many co-educational schools, is concern about the smaller number of girls seeking to study sciences and maths. By the time girls are choosing their public examination subjects it is perhaps too late. The messages and opportunities are ingrained.
That the strongest subjects at A-level in numbers and results at Roedean and many girls’ schools are sciences and maths should be noted. That 40% of our leavers go on to STEM careers should make us wonder what it is that girls’ schools do that allow girls to step forward and choose the careers most suited to them, not the careers left for them.
We should encourage all schools to give girls an equal opportunity to actively discuss issues, the time to enable them to phrase and ask questions and to be actively involved in practical work and real-world applications. Just because girls can also learn well theoretically and by themselves, does not mean that they should.
I am in no doubt that the dearth of women studying physics at top universities is rooted in this “step back” tendency if they have not grasped all the concepts and had their questions answered. Confidence is not something inbuilt in many girls, no matter how high achieving they are, it is something learnt through an iterative learning process. It must be nurtured.
Girls are keen to preserve a record of top marks, but it is not top marks that will enable them to spread their wings but depth of confidence that comes from being given a front seat in discussions and front line at the bench for experiments.
This is achievable in single-sex schools because it is their very nature, but the lessons on what enables girls to develop their own passions are as true in any school. They are less likely to take risks in learning when there is no time or encouragement for their thought processes. They can easily be made to regard initial failure or lack of understanding in a subject as a reason for closing down any further participation in that subject.
What a terrible waste of potential.
We have seen how inspired our pupils become when they listen to the achievements of women scientists, artists, business leaders, politicians and sporting legends.
That is why this Friday, on International Women’s Day, we will be welcoming a group of quite remarkable women to our school. When they listen to scientist and astronaut in waiting Dr Suzie Imber, to human rights activist Zerbanoo Gifford, to Newnham College Cambridge principal Dame Carol Black, to Olympic gold medallist and LGBT campaigner Helen Richardson-Walsh and to Syrian refugee and eminent doctor Mais Tatton, they will see risk-takers.
Because in every-day life – on the TV, online and in the newspaper – I do not believe they see these sorts of role models enough. The media does not show them as much as I would like.
And if we do not update the world in which girls learn and tailor our classroom approach to it in order to boost confidence, gender inequalities will remain. The pay gap will not close, corporations will still lack female leadership, STEM jobs will continue to be dominated by men and another generation’s potential will, once again, not be fully realized.