As educators, we must prepare our girls to take on the challenge of making the world a better place, Cheryl Giovannoni, CEO of the GDST, told the Girls’ Schools Association’s Conference for Heads
“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”
She then went on to display some of the characteristics we teach girls in our schools every day: to be fearless, get up when you fail, dust yourself off and try again, to believe in yourself and never, ever give up on your dreams.
The 2016 election against Donald J Trump was bruising. Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s Director of Communications for her presidential bid, wrote a book about the failed campaign. It’s an open letter to the woman who will one day be the first female President of the US.
In this letter, Palmieri talks about Clinton’s crushing defeat and tries to explain what went wrong:
“We had lived our lives playing by a certain set of rules, and they had failed us. We didn’t know what to make of it at first. Could it be that women are meant to go only so far in the world? No, that can’t be it. Women haven’t plateaued; it is the rules we were playing by that are outdated. We are learning to appreciate that with this uncertainty comes an empowering new sense of possibility, (where) women aren’t following anyone’s rules – they are creating their own game.”
“Women haven’t plateaued; it is the rules we were playing by that are outdated.”
We may be feeling disheartened by the lack of real progress women are making in many areas of professional life. That perhaps that plateau is real. That we aren’t making much headway in redefining the working world in ways that work for us, or delivers on our commitment to make it better for the next generation of girls.
After all, in the UK right now, there are fewer CEOs of FTSE100 companies than there were five years ago.
Still only 16% of employees in the tech industries are female – a proportion unchanged for over ten years – which means the risk is real that the future is being designed for women, but not by many women at all. A future in which, on average, 67% of all UK household consumption is controlled or influenced by women, yet women don’t have comparable control or influence on what actually gets made in the first place.
And it has been well publicised how much more women have been impacted by Covid-19:
Women are more likely to have been made redundant, with the need for flexibility around childcare having played a part in their redundancy; women are also more likely to be in lower paid work in the first place.
Small companies run by female entrepreneurs are half as likely to be in a strong financial position post-Covid, due to the juggling required between online learning, childcare, and having to do the lion’s share of domestic duties alongside running their businesses.
“The number of papers submitted to academic journals by women, and the number of research funding applications by women, plummeted during lockdown earlier this year while the numbers submitted by men increased.”
It’s no better in academia: the number of papers submitted to academic journals by women, and the number of research funding applications by women, plummeted during lockdown earlier this year, while the numbers submitted by men increased.
Another depressing fact is that over the last six years there have been six different Ministers for Women & Equalities, and the current postholder, Liz Truss, is also the International Trade Secretary. Did someone mention Brexit? Or free trade deals? If this government is truly committed to a ‘levelling up’ agenda, then there is plenty of work to be done to ensure that women are included in their plans, that there is a greater commitment to seeing that through, that affordable and flexible childcare provision is prioritised once and for all, alongside other structural reforms, family-friendly policies and support mechanisms that are good not just for women, but for men and for families, too.
It turns out that female voices and expertise have also been side-lined during the pandemic, despite most healthcare professionals being women. And despite women having suffered disproportionately from the economic and social fall-out, the media has been mainly talking to . . . men.
There are only two exceptions where women are quoted in the media more often than men – domestic violence and childcare. Even in education, where women make up about 80% of the workforce, only 38% of quotations are attributable to women.
We so often talk about women being the ultimate economic accelerator, with a potential $28 trillion being added to the world economy if we were more equal. And right now, with the mountains of debt countries are racking up in dealing with this crisis, the best possible way back to growth will be to ensure that women play an equal and full part in that economic recovery. Suspension of current reporting on the gender pay gap this year does not suggest this commitment is being taken seriously. Holding organisations to account has never been more important than right now and letting them off the hook over equal pay is frankly outrageous.
“We need to be working doubly hard with this generation of young women to ensure they can see what they might be one day…”
Whilst we may not be able to change the current situation that easily, as educators we most certainly can prepare the girls in our schools to take on the challenge of making the world a better place through the way we are educating them. We need to be working doubly hard with this generation of young women to ensure they can see what they might be one day, that they become the torchbearers of real change, the policymakers of the future, with the ambition to use their influence and power, to play their part in designing a world that is better not just for women, but for everyone, including the planet and its sustainability for future generations.
One thing that Covid 19 has indeed shown us is how important female leadership is in the world right now, in solving our biggest problems. And that women are doing this on their own terms. Just look at these six leaders – Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland, Sanna Marin of Finland, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Erna Solberg of Norway. What do they have in common? Yes, they are all female, but leading countries of different sizes and cultures. The highest death toll of those six countries is in Germany at below 12,000 (remember, over 50,000 people have died of Covid in the UK, and more than a quarter of a million in the US). Denmark currently has about 750 Covid deaths, Finland 370, Norway 300, New Zealand 25, Iceland 20, Taiwan only 7.
Writing in Forbes magazine, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox puts this down to four things that women leaders have demonstrated:
No 1. They speak the truth – plainly and simply, no denial, anger or defensiveness. And people listen.
No 2. They are decisive and clear in what they ask for.
No 3. They show respect for young people (many have even said that it’s ok to be scared) and they use those young people to help spread information on their social media channels.
And No 4, they are not afraid to show love and kindness.
Just think of that powerful image of Jacinda Ardern hugging a Muslim woman after the tragic shootings at the mosques in Christchurch – an image that reverberated globally.
So that gives me huge hope for the future – evidence that success does not necessarily come from playing by the rules made by men or the stereotypical thinking that success is only ever ‘man-shaped’. It can be even more powerful and successful if it is woman shaped. What better role models do the girls in our schools need right now, than powerful, authentic, compassionate women leading in a way they can identify with and aspire to?
Research by UN Women and the Council on Foreign Relations found that when women played a substantial role in peace talks, the truce was 64% less likely to fail, and 35% more likely to last at least 15 years. However, women only make up 8% of those involved in negotiations, 2% of mediators and 5% of all witness and signatories to a peace agreement. They are also more likely to be subjected to attacks in conflict zones. And that has not changed in two decades.
One activist who is driving change commented,
“Women play a crucial role because we look at conflict differently. Men’s egos start wars and prolong wars. Women’s emotion and compassion can stop (them).”
In her book, Work like a woman. A manifesto for change, Mary Portas, or Mary Queen of Shops to most of us, talks about the powerful, sensitive collaborative new way of working that does not prescribe to the alpha codes of the past, but that heralds a cultural shift that the world is going through towards a more authentic, responsible and sustainable future. And it is this new energy that she talks about as the real game changer.
She also contends that this cultural shift is being fuelled by important movements like #Metoo and Black Lives Matter, both of which will have a truly fundamental impact on our future, even though progress can often seem slow and frustrating.
“We need women to be at the table where decisions are being made, but we also need them to be designing the table and inviting others to join them at the table where they are in charge, comfortably so, if that is who they choose to be.”
We have to encourage the girls in our schools to be fearless, creative, entrepreneurial, to be confident to not only ask for a pay rise, but to negotiate with their partner as an equal stakeholder in any relationship, not assume theirs is the also-ran career that automatically gets downgraded when children are introduced into the equation.
We need women to be at the table where decisions are being made, but we also need them to be designing the table and inviting others to join them at the table where they are in charge, comfortably so, if that is who they choose to be.
I remain resolutely positive about the future, one which is human-shaped, and I believe that schools in the GSA are uniquely positioned in the work that you as leaders do every day to build the women of the future whose impact and influence will make it a better, more sustainable one for us all.
So how about that glass ceiling of Hillary’s with its 18 million cracks?
To paraphrase Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys,
“That rock ‘n roll, it just won’t go away … it’s always waiting there, just around the corner. Ready to make its way through the sludge and smash through the glass ceiling, looking better than ever”.
So, if you needed any proof that maybe, just maybe, the cracks in the ceiling are getting wider, that things are looking better ….