Channelling your inner cheerleader

Helen Fraser’s speech to the GDST Annual Conference on Wednesday 15 June 2016.

Someone asked me recently whether it felt like a long time ago that I joined the Trust (it was at the start of 2010) or if those six and a half years had gone by in a flash. I replied that most of the time it felt like the latter, but occasionally I look back at the start of 2010 and think – what a different world it was. We still had a Labour government. I had coffee with a very young seeming Michael Gove in the cafeteria in Portcullis House.

Linear A Levels and new GCSE qualifications, and the end of grade inflation – some of the things which have had a huge impact on our schools – were no more than a twinkle in Mr Gove’s eye. And certainly back then it would have been hard to imagine the whole nation in the throes, as it is now, of a referendum on whether to leave the EU.

So a different world in many ways, but one thing that hasn’t really changed in those six and a half years has been the position of women. I read an extraordinary piece in The Week the other day which said that if you count the extras in any film, you will find that the number of women in the crowd of extras never exceeds 17%. 

I have talked quite a lot over the years about the ‘20%’ barrier – the fact that at the top of most professions – medicine, law, academia, the police, politics – there seems to be almost a quota for women: 20% of consultant doctors, of judges, of university professors, of police chief constables. And our MPs have now surged past that – to an amazing 27%. But why is it that despite the Equal Pay Act being passed 40 years ago, women are still unequal at work and are paid significantly less than men?

And there are even stranger pieces of evidence about the way in which, in so many ways, the 21st century we live in is still a man’s world. For instance a twelve year old called Madeline Messer recently analysed 50 popular iPhone games and found that 98% came with built in boy characters, and only 46% with girls. And in 90% of the games the boy characters came free, which was only true for 15% of the female characters. Madeline said ‘these biases affect young girls like me…I prefer being a girl in these games. I do not want to pay to be a girl.’

Another example of bias in the digital world is the lack of powerful role models in female emojis. Research by Procter & Gamble suggested that 82% of girls aged 16-24 use emojis every day, but for women actually doing something, there are only archetypes: a flamenco dancer, a bride, a princess, ballet dancers and playboy bunnies, while male emojis include police officers and builders, runners and swimmers. 

These examples are annoying, but they probably won’t actually kill you, unlike bias in the design of cars. A designer named Kat Ely has written about how, because crash test dummies are designed to mimic male bodies, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car crash.  

Unsurprisingly, one of the aspects of our world that is designed around women is the kitchen. Jane Drew, an architect and Croydon High alumna, won the contract to design kitchens for housing developed to replace bombed houses after World War 2. Her research included gathering statistics on the height of post-war British women to establish a new standard height for cookers.

So one of the questions I’ve been asking myself, as I approach the end of my time as chief executive of the Trust, is has my experience at the GDST radicalised me? Have I become even more of a feminist as I have worked in an organisation which is dedicated to educating girls who aspire to the heights (or as Tom Hanks put it in the forward of a book on educating girls by the founder of the Archer School in Los Angeles ‘From the perspective of a father, a single sex school may not be for every young woman – just for those who want to one day rule over the city, the state and the world’).

And I think the answer is yes – working at the GDST has radicalised me. It has made me think harder about the 21st century pressures on girls to be perfect – perfectly beautiful, with a perfect row of A stars, perfectly good at sport and music and friendship; at the pressures on young women in their twenties, who as they start to build a career, form a relationship and find a place to live, are told that they need to start having children fast, or their fertility will be gone; at the continuing difficulty women in the workplace have in moving up to really senior positions; at the ongoing challenges of being a working mother; and at the tiny number of female CEOs of Footsie 100 companies.

One psychologist has said that women tend to feel confident only when they feel perfect – or ‘practically perfect in every way’ like Mary Poppins.

Working at the GDST has radicalised me. It has made me think harder about the pressures on girls to be perfect.

Helen Fraser, GDST CEO

I’ve had to reflect endlessly and hard – in fact I feel as if this is the issue I have worried away at for the past six years – as to why it is that the girls we educate – girls who seem to us so poised, so confident, so articulate, so high-achieving – are not moving as smoothly up the work and life escalator to career success as their male counterparts. Is it something intrinsic to all girls and the way they are, or is it something embedded in our culture and organisations that needs to change?

Carol Dweck, the American psychologist, said ‘If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world’. What is it, as they step over the fragile bridge from education to employment, that militates against girls succeeding?  

As Dweck says ‘they leave school crammed full of interesting historical facts and elegant foreign language subjunctives proud of their ability to study hard and get the best grades, and determined to please. But somewhere between the classroom and the office cubicle, the rules change and they don’t realise it. They slam into a work world that doesn’t reward them for perfect spelling and exquisite manners’.

So what have I learnt, over the past six years, about what we as educators can do to make that transition easier for girls, to arm them for that corporate and career world, and to enable them, as Hanks says, eventually to get to rule? How can we build the confidence that will enable them to manage the white water rafting of modern careers?

One is that being at a girls’ only school really helps. The Dean of Princeton, at a recent Global Conference in New York on girls’ schools attended by a number of our heads, said that she noticed that the confidence of women students in her college dropped steadily over the four years they attended – with only two exceptions: students who had attended girls’ only schools, and those who had played on sports teams.

Another is the way in which we coax girls away from ‘perfect good girl behaviours’ – enabling them to take risks in the classroom with their thinking, on the sports field, helping them to stand out and be heard, to find their voices.

We talk a lot about our 4 Cs at GDST – confidence, courage, commitment and composure. We also do our very best to build resilient girls, who can confront setbacks and have ‘bouncebackability’ – or buoyancy, to use the newest term.

We have schools like Wimbledon that have run their ‘fail better week’, Oxford with their ‘goodbye to Little Miss Perfect’, and Brighton with their ‘grit week’ where famously the girls had to put seven slightly scary activities in order of preference – and were then told to get on with number seven. Kevin Stannard, our Director of Education, and I have courted controversy by talking about the importance of girls being more disruptive in the classroom.

I’m sure you will start to see that there is a theme here: we want our schools to take girls away from being quiet, neat, ‘good girls’ to becoming adventurous risk takers who don’t allow their inner critic to silence their voices.

We need to persuade girls to challenge that inner critic that judges you, tells you you’re not good enough.

Helen Fraser, GDST CEO

We need to persuade girls to challenge that inner critic that judges you, tells you you’re not good enough, that your ideas aren’t worth hearing. We know that too many girls and women, especially in a situation they find slightly intimidating (a university interview for example, or being the only woman sitting on a board) allow their inner critic to prevent them from speaking up or speaking out. This silencing of girls’ voices leads to a sort of self-censorship.

If you don’t have that confidence in your own abilities, you can talk yourself out of expressing an opinion before you even open your mouth. And if the female half of the population are routinely censoring themselves, their great ideas aren’t getting aired and implemented and the world is a poorer place.

Too many women are in thrall to their inner critic. When I first started making mental links between what happens inside schools and what happens to young women in the workplace, the first thing that I talked about was the need for young women to speak out at work, to be heard, to claim their successes – not just to sit quietly doing brilliant working and hoping someone might notice. 

I believe our schools do a fantastic job of enabling girls to find their voice: you only have to hear a Year 6 girl giving a presentation at a leadership day, or a Year 12 girl pitching for a head girl position, or the dazzling presentations given by Year 10 girls at the Crystall Prize to realise that these are girls who haven’t allowed their inner critic to say ‘don’t do it – you aren’t good enough’. Our girls I believe learn to challenge that inner critic with their inner cheerleader, and this means, throughout their lives, they can do, achieve, and enjoy more.

Our girls challenge their inner critic with their inner cheerleader, meaning they can do, achieve, and enjoy more.

Helen Fraser, GDST CEO

A few memorable vignettes from the time I have spent in our brilliant schools: a junior science class at South Hampstead where the girls were busy with test tubes and Bunsen burners, and the teacher said ‘in my previous school it would have been the boys doing the experiments and the girls writing on the clipboard’. I remember too being immensely struck watching a group of Oxford High 13-year-olds rush back, red faced and sweaty, from a sports lesson, and thinking ‘they aren’t worrying about how they look, or their hair, or their weight – they are just throwing themselves with total enthusiasm into sport’.

I remember the parent of an 11-year-old telling me ‘since she has come to this school she has stopped wanting to wear nail varnish’, and a parent of a five-year-old at Bath saying ‘she was completely overwhelmed and silent at her co-ed primary school – now she has found her confidence’. I think of the parents at an evening at Ken Prep who said how happy they were that their children stayed children for longer in our schools.  I think of the amazing teams of girls at our Digital Leaders’ conference, confidently grappling with technology.

That confidence is so crucial for our girls – at school, at university, in the workplace. They will be moving into a VUCA world – a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – and I believe that what we are doing, from the age of four to the age of eighteen, is building truly amazing women, women with an inner intellectual confidence, prepared to express an opinion, ready to tackle everything that university and beyond can throw at them.

To do this even better, we need more learning and less assessment – real in-depth learning, not just the jumping through hoops that the exam system requires, and the by-product of which is that confidence is undermined, not nurtured.

I want every girl to leave our schools not just with a clutch of As and A stars, if that is what they need, but more importantly to leave knowing that they have had a fantastic education, and that they have within themselves the courage, confidence, composure and commitment to be their own inner – and outer – cheerleaders.