Cheryl was followed by Dame Helena Morrissey, who made the point that life and careers are often labyrinths, rather than straightforward ladders, and encouraged girls to ‘leap before you look!’; overcoming a ‘wall of worry’ that focuses not on how to succeed but on how to avoid failure. “Our job,” she said “as parents, teachers, businesses, is to encourage more girls to ask ‘How do I get to the top?'”
She also spoke about the importance that more girls have the opportunity to play competitive team sports – “not just for fitness, but also for life skills”.
She urged girls to engage more with current affairs, to encourage intellectual curiosity, rigorous debate, to show that there is a role for girls and women in getting involved in these types of discussion and that actually they can be fun and interesting. “Many times” she continued “I see girls and women very narrowly focused on their immediate tasks rather than seeing the bigger picture, being involved in the discussions that will help them think strategically – key for senior roles – later.”
Next, Peggy Orenstein, US author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, spoke about the commercialisation of girls' childhood – what she dubbed the ‘princess industrial complex’ – and how the Disney Princess brand generates more income than Star Wars. "Stereotypes about gender and intelligence solidify between ages 5 and 7" she told the audience.
The gendering of pink and blue products, and the ‘princess and hero’ culture for children only reinforces stereotyping at an incredibly early age. “'Girls are sold the illusion that narcissism is self-confidence” she added, “the pressure on girls to be desired is greater than the pressure to fulfil their desires”. To overcome this, Peggy advises teachers and parents to point out the absurdity of some of the depictions of womanhood (cartoon women whose eyes are wider than their waists) so that they can ‘talk back’ to popular culture, “changing them from princesses to heroines.”
The afternoon focused on the work of the Positive project, a programme to support mental health and wellbeing in staff and students at GDST schools and academies. Dr Brian Marien, the founder of Positive group, spoke about the programme, and he was joined on stage by girls, staff and parents who benefited from it.