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How schools can empower young women to succeed in business

Marina Gardiner Legge, Headmistress at Heathfield, a leading independent secondary boarding and day school in Ascot for girls aged 11-18, reflects on the role of schools in preparing women for success in business.

Compliance is a fundamental expectation within our education system.  When we think of learning in school, we might well imagine pupils sitting at desks in rows, following the rules, conforming. However, there seems to be a paradox here: as educators, we also want to encourage verve, spirit and a sense of self-belief that will empower individuals to question decisions, seek alternative solutions, and express opinions.

These are hugely important character traits, for everyone but especially for women, to carry into the world beyond school  – a world in which success may depend on being able to query judgments made by people in more senior positions, actively engage with conflict, negotiate pay rises, stand up for their rights.

Levelling the playing field       

This is the 21st century and gender inequality in the workplace is still prevalent. The gender pay gap was one of the most important issues facing women in the UK in 2019; anecdotal feedback suggesting that women do ask for pay rises as much as men but don’t get them. Women are still vastly underrepresented in positions of power – for example just 7% of FTSE100 company CEOs and 37% of MPs in the House of Commons are female.

In July 2019, the former Minister for Women and Equalities Penny Mordaunt set out her vision for gender equality in the UK with the publication of ‘Gender equality at all stages: A roadmap for change’. Since then, the new minister in this post Liz Truss has stressed the importance of moving away from ‘identity politics’ where people are appointed as the ‘token’ woman or minority employee, saying that all individuals should be ‘allowed to succeed regardless of their gender, their sexuality, their race’.

How can schools help sow the seeds for social change and level the playing field between men and women in terms of pay, attitude and aspiration?

“It is vital for girls to have strong female role models – women who demonstrate the qualities that sit alongside verve and spirit: strength of character, a robust work ethic, self-confidence, self-discipline, resilience, independence and integrity. These are women who ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.”

Knowing when to speak out

While young people need to know the customs of social interaction and courtesy, we must also encourage them to speak out and stand up for themselves and others. When asked, “How are you”, many people will reply automatically, “I’m fine, thank you” even if they’re really struggling underneath. It’s really important that we encourage openness, which may mean admitting, “Actually I’m not feeling that great today”.

As a boarding school that is small in size, Heathfield has a nurturing environment where staff and pupils all know each other exceptionally well. Being away from home cultivates independence and strength of mind – the onus is on the girls to express their needs, their likes and dislikes and to respect and understand others’ differences. Girls grow in confidence when they know that they are appreciated for who they are and that their voices are being listened to.

Schools must find innovative ways to show students that their voices matter, that they can make an impact – this is key to promoting empowerment.

Nurturing spirit

Spirit is a quality to be celebrated and encouraged in every individual. Students who have a bit of sparkle about them – perhaps even a ‘disruptive streak’ – may need a creative approach to bring out their potential. Young people feel very strongly about issues – if we shut them down, we are shutting down any kind of logical debate and argument. It is essential to create a safe space where students feel confident and trust staff; then we must channel their spirit positively – ask them to lead the class, give them a platform to voice their opinions.

We must also dedicate the time that is needed to unravel concerns – sit down with the student, ask them to write down their feelings, talk through their ideas, encourage them to consider the ramifications of their actions. Research shows that when teachers develop great relationships with the pupils that they teach, they create a safe environment in which self esteem and confidence flourish. And that is something that we can all do; the best teachers change lives. We all know that.

Empowering students to succeed

I believe the sign of a great teacher is one who looks into a child and sees something special that even the child may not realise they have. I see it as our role to bring out students’ spirit and support them in pursuing their passions. Our education system must prepare women for business by providing a sense of authenticity, empowerment and ‘get up and go’. This may mean questioning our own understanding of compliance and ensuring that ‘rules’ are flexible enough to allow spirit to shine.

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