Ask a girl what challenges may lie ahead for her generation of young women in “finding a seat at the table” and she will quickly respond with “why find a table, when we can build our own!”
While an impressive response and reassuring to hear that there has been a significant shift in the way that girls see their future potential, it does highlight the need for girl’s schools to be actively and explicitly teaching the essential tools that girls need to lead and build those tables, at a time of immeasurable global change.
Little things can make a significant difference in empowering our girls. Recognising the challenges that lie ahead is the first step.
Put simply, girls need to understand that gender-based discrimination still exists. Girls can be naive to the fact that their gender can hold them back, even in the 21st century. They cannot address or respond to what they cannot see, or what is not discussed.
In a girl’s school many educational leadership positions are held by women. Girls see women in roles having influence, authority to make decisions and effect change. Girls are very observant, just ask them what colour shoes their principal was wearing at the last assembly and they will respond without hesitation!
Understanding their future reality is key. Gender bias and discrimination exists beyond school walls. We all need to own this problem – girls included. The need for systemic change must be on our girl’s radar and preparing our girls to tackle this is crucial. It is never too early for girls to start to develop an understanding of the challenges they will face in breaking down barriers in a male-dominated world.
The second step is investing in our girl’s future professional and personal skills. A spotlight on preparing our girls for a workforce that is still entrenched in gender disparities, gender discrimination, less pay and sexual harassment needs to underpin strategic plans in girls’ schools. Challenges and opportunities await the next generation of women, but how do we ensure that our girls fully embrace these?
With support, guidance and coaching, girls need to be encouraged out of their comfort zone to learn to deal with new challenges. Unpredictable curve balls will be a part of their journey. Girl’s will face uncomfortable circumstances and challenging situations when they step outside of the nurturing and safe learning environment, that girls schools are known for.
Many women will remember moments when they have stumbled, lost their voice, or lost their self-confidence sitting around a decision-making table or in another context when their instincts have suggested that something is not quite right. Very few women have escaped this reality at some time in their lives. Important conversations on this topic are currently taking place in schools, however they were not a priority over the past few decades. Surely, we want more for our daughters?
Our girls need to know what to do when they don’t know what to do, when to express themselves and how to express themselves. Self-advocacy does not come naturally to all girls; however, it is the secret sauce that all girls need to learn. It is critical in the modern workplace and working in teams. Explicitly teaching girls how to voice their opinions and ideas and to be heard is essential. Their voice is their superpower and the sooner they realise this, and practice using it, the quicker those tables will be built.
The third step is nurturing a healthy competitive spirit. Many observations on this can be made following thirty years in education teaching all boys, all girls and co-education. Girls tend to respond less favourably to competition than boys, demonstrating concern for the negative emotions that come with competition and its accompanying win or lose mindset. This results in less opportunities being realised by girls. Girls need to develop a healthy competitive edge and shift their perception of competition from a negative one to a positive one. Great lessons can be learnt from a healthy competitive spirit and kindness can still prevail.
There is no doubt that the next generation of women will play a significant part in setting agendas, decision making and driving positive change at a local, national, and global level. If a girl has a realistic understanding of the challenges ahead, a strong dose of self-advocacy, and a healthy competitive spirit, she can achieve unbelievable things. I wouldn’t be leading a girl’s school if I didn’t truly believe that.
There is nothing more powerful than a conversation with a four-year-old kindergarten girl that starts with “Did you know that boys can be astronauts too?”
New tables are already under construction. Gen Z, you have my roaring support.