A good time to be a girl?

Cheryl Giovannoni’s speech to the GDST Annual Conference, 14 June 2017.

In June 1913, four days after she stepped out in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died.

And 104 years later, in 2017, the number of female MPs surpassed 200 for the first time ever.  In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 that the total number of female MPs in history surpassed the number of male MPs in a single parliament.

So is it a good time to be a girl?  Damn right, Emily would say, if she was at our conference today.

The experts are clear: there are many positives, and of course there are still many challenges.

But, if you believe some commentators, the overall picture is much gloomier.

I was at a talk by the well-known psychologist Steve Biddulph recently at Wimbledon High School, talking about his recent book on raising girls, and the portrait he painted was a depressing one.  With two teenage daughters of my own, I wondered if I was living in a parallel universe, blissfully unaware of the extreme pressure they were being subjected to, relentlessly, by predatory boys hell bent on taking advantage of them, without any of the coping skills they need to thrive in today’s world.

In Biddulph’s world, girls are soooooo anxious and unhappy.

And don’t get me wrong, I know that some girls are.

But overall, like the young women we just saw, it’s not a picture that rings wholly true for me, nor one that we should succumb to as yet another reason to wrap girls in cotton wool and protect them from a deeply evil world where they are preyed upon mercilessly.

Not all girls are victims.

I believe that many girls are far stronger, resilient, opinionated and feisty than they are given credit for.

There’s a huge amount our schools do every day to create and celebrate that empowerment.  Because we have been doing this for 145 years (not the heads with us today of course, who all look far more youthful than that!). . .  WE know how girls learn, what they need to thrive, how they are best supported and encouraged.  That’s our business – the business of teaching girls to be the very best they can be.

And there’s a lot that the girls in our schools are doing to empower themselves and other girls they know too.

For example, earlier this year, Jenny and Rachel, two girls from Nottingham Girls’ High School, were invited to the UN as part of the UK delegation to the Commission on the Status of Women.  They spoke at high-level meetings and argued their case with evidence, with passion and with conviction too.

Another example is Lota, the Minerva prize winner from Norwich High School, who was in our film earlier, and who combines strong academics (she has an offer to read maths at Emmanuel College, Cambridge) with an extensive contribution to many aspects of school life and her wider community, including mentoring a younger girl at the school.

In several of our schools, there are regular feminist and feminism clubs to discuss and campaign on the issues that matter to the students and their peers.

And later today Dr Brian Marien will talk about the first year of the Positive Project, which we are investing in to ensure that we are at the fore front of positive mental health for the staff and girls in our schools.  We are the first group of schools to invest in this project, a real demonstration of our commitment to be pioneers in, and leaders of, girls’ education in an area that matters, and where we can make a real difference in positive wellbeing.

But we are aware that in many ways our schools, and our girls, are swimming against the tide of popular culture.

And we all know that swimming against the tide means you don’t make as much progress as you really ought to, and sometimes you can feel the tide is working relentlessly against your best efforts.

What do I mean by the tide of popular culture?

I mean the sort of culture that leaves Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, two central female cast members, off the Avengers Age of Ultron DVD cover.

The sort of culture that means there have been nearly 20 big-budget Marvel and DC superhero movies over the last ten years and only now is there one – just one – named after its female lead character: DC’s Wonder Woman.

But let’s look on the bright side. As a games designer named Brian Engard tweeted, “There’s a generation of girls growing up right now where Wonder Woman is their first superhero, Rey is a Jedi, and Ghostbusters are women”.

In fact, Wonder Woman embraces issues of female power and the need to turn from hate to love, war to peace, in a mainstream delivery system.  And the female lead is not solely a mother, sister, girlfriend or hooker, however gold her heart – wonder of wonders!

And it’s great that Wonder Woman is permitted to talk – because, in films, male characters dominate the screen and the speaking time.

Even in Frozen, a film dedicated to telling the story of two sister princesses, the male characters get to deliver 59 per cent of the lines.

When I talk about the tide of popular culture, I’m also talking about the sort of environment where a young parliamentary candidate can be contacted on her public Facebook page with messages about what sexual acts she’s prepared to perform to get votes, what bra size she is, and how many votes are needed for her to strip.

And I’m talking about a popular culture which routinely elevates men’s interests and downplays and marginalises women’s ones.

Where women can reach the summit of political power as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and First Minister of Scotland, and some commentators think the most important thing is to judge them on their legs and not their policies.

And what about new, digital industries?

Computing started out as a very welcoming place for women.

The first computing language, COBOL, was written by Grace Hopper, who went on to become a rear admiral in the US Navy.

Dame Stephanie Shirley set up a company called Freelance Programmers in the early 1960s, specifically recruiting women with families and fitting work around their other responsibilities; only one percent of her first 300 employees were men.

And, as we all now know from the film Hidden Figures, it was a team of African American Female Mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race who wrote the computer programmes that successfully landed men on the moon.

But progress is frustratingly slow in many areas.

You would think that new industries, the digital world in particular, would be free from the legacy of older professions.

Instead they seem intent on replicating the same bad habits: paying women less, and promoting them less too. How are we allowing this to happen?

While companies like Brainlabs challenge this culture – and I’m delighted that the challenge was spearheaded by the company’s Chief Operating Officer, Sophie Newton, an alumna of South Hampstead High School and one of our Alumna of the Year nominees – recent revelations of potentially discriminatory practices at Uber, Oracle and Google have shone a new, and not very flattering light, on the sector.

Yet these industries are where future employment opportunities lie, and what we need to do is excite women and girls enough so that they want to make a meaningful contribution and shape the future in this most disruptive of sectors, and not leave the future to men.

Girls are social beings. Some people think cats own the internet – I think girls and women do.

Certainly, in the United States, every major social media network – Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter – has a higher proportion of women than men using it.

We share, we communicate, we collaborate online. (We also shop and chat, but that’s for another conference speech!)

And yes, some use social media to snark and belittle other girls and women.

But many more use the tools technology has gifted them to campaign and connect with each other, and to support and embiggen each other.

Girls online are purposeful and purpose-led.   We also need them to lead and innovate in a world that needs their contribution.

Women also use technology to subvert, to resist and to fight back against the prevailing culture. I joined my daughters and millions worldwide in the women’s marches organised through Facebook, and watched us celebrate our collective success on Instagram and twitter.

Contrary to many ‘mean girls’ memes and queen bee myths, that view every woman as in a survival-of-the-fittest competition with each other, I believe we are at our most powerful when girls and women instinctively understand that ‘I don’t shine if you don’t shine’; girls and women who celebrate each other’s successes and help each other to be their best, most awesome selves. Putting Ann Friedman’s shine theory into action every day.

Ann’s basic premise is that it is far more beneficial to support your female colleagues than to compete for recognition, praise and career advancement. Rather than seeing successful or powerful women as rivals, teaming up is mutually beneficial.

“Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison,” she said. “It makes you better.”

And don’t forget those famous words from Madeleine Albright will you – you know, the special place in hell for women who don’t help other women?  Let’s be the ones who send the elevator back down for other women, rather than pulling the ladder up behind us.

That’s something we all champion every day at the GDST. I believe that, when all of us – our staff and girls and schools – work together and collaborate, we stand on each other’s shoulders and we all rise.

What also excites and inspires me is the way in which social media and technology has done so much to shrink the world. As you will remember from our film earlier, our girls have a vision that is personal, that is local to their own communities, and is global in its reach and its ambition. They are aware of how much progress towards gender equality has been made in the western world, and how lucky they are to be girls and women here, and they want the progress to be matched in all parts of the developing world too.

Yesterday on Radio 4, I was reminded of Manal Al-Sharif, the Saudi woman with two children, who posted a video on Youtube in 2011 of her driving a car home to escape predatory behaviour on the streets and was arrested for Driving while Female. That video was shared 700,000 times (and her TED talk has been viewed one and a half million times) and she was banished to Australia and her two children separated.

Her message yesterday I feel was scripted for us here today – she said “make sure you are in the driving seat of your own destiny, whatever the consequences, and please use your levity to raise my levity” – important messages that make our privileged and lucky girls even more instrumental in the future.

Let’s turn to men now, shall we?  What do we need from all the men in our lives, at work and at home?  To make sure that the future continues to be a good time to be a girl, I think we can all agree that it is only with the support of men that we will make real progress.

And while I appreciate the intent behind campaigns like HeforShe or Dads4Daughters, which seek to get men involved in the movement for gender equality, I also believe that role models are much more powerful when they are women. Of course we want the support of men, but we should not let them take the lead in a campaign for women and girls.

Here’s something that’s really been exercising me since the talk at Wimbledon High that I mentioned earlier: why have we (the GDST that is) allowed Steve Biddulph to take the high ground on raising girls?

Mr Biddulph spent 30 years of wonderful work focused on raising boys, for which he has won international acclaim.  Now he has turned his attention to a new topic – that of raising girls. He sent out a plea to all of us in the audience that night to take up the work which he will not have time to complete, because he doesn’t have another 30 years. It was a heartfelt and genuine plea, yet it left me utterly exasperated.

He really should have done his research better. He was speaking in a girls’ school with well over 100 years of experience in producing brilliantly educated, grounded, outstanding young women. A school that is a member of the most prestigious organisation in the world specialising in girls’ education, with 3,770 years’ collective experience in this area. Founded by a group of revolutionary women who refused to accept that girls did not deserve an equal education. The vanguards of a movement that has continued to grow and thrive ever since.

Yet there he was, calling on us to pick up the valiant mantle he had assumed in the last few years.

Twenty years before our founding mothers became our founding mothers, Emily Shirreff and her sister Maria Grey wrote ‘Thoughts on Self Culture Addressed to Women’, in which they laid out a basis for education for girls.

With our 150th anniversary on the horizon, I think it’s time to bring that pioneering spirit, and our imperative to shape the future of education, bang up to date.

The GDST should (and will) write the definitive book on girls and what they need to fulfil their dreams and ambitions, with the content from our 26 fabulous heads here with us today. They – we – are the real experts.

I look forward to working with each and every one of you on the definitive guide to educating girls.

I’m also looking forward to hearing from the other speakers today, I’m sure they will have much food for thought for all of us as we begin our manuscript.