New Rules – Preparing young women for a world of radical change

Why new rules?

Because it’s increasingly clear that the old rules just aren’t working for most of us.

What sort of rules am I talking about?

The old rules that tell us that women are innately better at some tasks and jobs, and men at others.

The old rules that tell us that leadership is all about being a ball-breaker in the boardroom, totally smashing it at the negotiating table – that as long as you get your way, it doesn’t matter who or what you damage.

The old rules that say some professions are closed shops, open only to those from the right background.

The old rules that say young people are too naïve or too idealistic if they think they can change the world.

Those are the rules that we need to tear up, and let’s start today.

Replacing old rules

But let’s not tear up the rule book without considering what will replace it. Let’s not simply replicate the mistakes of the past.

As Chief Executive at the Girls’ Day School Trust, I asked the heads of all our 25 schools and academies to provide their input on what they consider to be new rules worth making. So when it comes to talking about the new rules, these arrive hotfoot from the head honchos.

Importantly, we need to recognise that young people are thinking, communicating and acting differently from previous generations. Their expectations of who and what they can be, what they can achieve, have fundamentally shifted.

Take one of my daughters as an example. She is studying environmental sciences and her father – jokingly I might add – said perhaps she will marry a farmer. Her rejoinder was for him to buck up basically, because women aren’t the farmers’ wives any more, now they are the farmers.

Women are writing the new rules as a result.

Or as Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also known as the notorious RBG), the eighty-six year old US Supreme Court Justice who featured in a powerful film and a documentary this year, says “Be the lawyer your mother always wanted you to marry”.

The new rules are about making the world a better place, which is what motivates many young people, but especially girls. But too often their potential is blocked when it should be bolstered, their voices muted when they should be amplified.

In Forbes’ list of the 100 most innovative leaders in America only one woman was featured. Forbes needs to look at its understanding of both ‘leadership’ and ‘innovation’.

Any list that leaves out the CEOs of YouTube and 23andMe, Susan and Anne Wojcicki, as well as dozens of other innovative female leaders of pioneering companies, is not worth the paper it’s printed on.

Because, while only 2.2% of tech investment funding goes to women-led start-ups, they are providing some of the most innovative products and services to benefit society.

Look at Emily Brooke, one of othe GDST’s alumna of the year nominees this year, whose Laserlight helps make cyclists far more visible to other road users and is now standard on Santander Cycles in London.

Or another alumna, Liv Little, who founded gal-dem to provide a print publication and online platform for more diverse voices.

Or Lindsey Noake, co-founder of Gather, which uses data intelligence to transform sanitation in emerging cities across the world.

And Debbie Wosskow, who brings all these amazing women together at her now global enterprise AllBright Club and Academy, alongside a network of angel investors which supports female-led start-ups.


We have one job at the GDST

To ensure our girls become world changers. And we can help them achieve that because of our amazing staff who understand what it takes; who can give them the tools – the knowledge, skills and confidence to rewrite the rules.

But if we are to make the world a better place, a world that works for everyone, then everyone must be involved. To rewrite the rules and change the world for the benefit of all, we all need to work together. If we are to play by the rules, then we all want a voice in writing them. All of us. No woman – or man – left behind.

We need new rules like ‘Recognise your global responsibility’, suggested by Zara Hubble, Head of Northwood College for Girls.

New rules like ‘Approach problems by asking not ‘if’ but ‘how’, because trying out different ways of doing things often leads to a better solution’, says Caroline Hulme McKibbin of Kensington Prep School.

New rules like ‘Focus on results, not recognition’ suggested by Jo Sharrock of Shrewsbury High School.

As Harry S Truman said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” This is perhaps an old rule but one that deserves to be carried forward as one of our new rules.

Or, in the words of Jane Lunnon at Wimbledon High School, “Find something bigger than yourself to care about and to work for”.

GDST schools are engines of progress. We will never tire of championing women and girls. Whilst women have made great strides in the UK and the western world in the past few decades, there is still much more to do if we are all to live in a truly equal society.

And believe me, the future will be more female. We are in the lucky position of having the skills the world has never needed more: we know that to work effectively in the 21st century you need to be collaborative, emotionally intelligent, organised – leadership qualities women have in abundance.

And we all know women make stuff happen, don’t we?

Much has been made of the female squad – the posse of women who have each other’s backs, professionally and personally. Well let’s be the squad that drives change, let’s make our collegiate approach count, let’s do this together.

As Jo Sharrock of Shrewsbury High says, “Women have a great effect on other women, they inspire and champion other women far, far more than they undermine or compete with them. When will the world accept this?”

Summed up nicely by Matthew Shoults of Notting Hill & Ealing High, “Be confident, not comparative”.


Future education

At the GDST, we know that many of our girls will choose to pursue careers in technology and in the emerging field of AI. While there is, rightly, some concern over how a lack of diversity in the sector and poorly written algorithms can amplify biases (think Alexa), it’s clear that AI is going to have more and more influence over how we work and how we live. We also know that we cannot leave the design of the future to men alone, women have to be designing the future alongside them – and we have to inspire girls to be inspired by it.

That’s why, for example, we have our annual Techathons, bringing girls and mentors from the tech community together to create a wide variety of applications that use technology to help build a better world for all. This year’s event focused on innovative ways to use artificial intelligence for social good. The winning team (with students from Belvedere and Norwich) came up with an app to help livestock farmers in developing countries keep track of their cattle.

We are also working with the Women Leading in AI network to set up an education forum, to collaborate on how to teach our students about ethical AI.

This summer I supported Norwich High’s ‘Inspiring Females’ summit at Chelsea Football Club. The day was rounded off with a ‘dads and daughters’ session, with, as the name suggests, young women interviewing their fathers about what they were doing to make the workplace a better one for women. It’s clear that these men were their daughters’ biggest cheerleaders. And the girls weren’t afraid to challenge their fathers if they thought they were falling short in any way.

What they told us has led to us to give more prominence to the programme we run to equip girls with financial skills. Managing your money – getting it, spending it, investing it, and not relying on someone else to provide it – is a life skill every woman needs. Taking charge of your finances is absolutely vital if you are to be financially secure and have control of your own destiny.

As Julie Keller of Nottingham Girls’ High School says, ‘Self-interest is not negative interest’.

And, in the words of Sally Davis at Howell’s School Llandaff, “Don’t settle for anything less than equal pay for equal jobs”.


Working life

Of course, the main way that young women are going to get money is by working for it.

And working often means fitting in with a prevailing culture where the rules aren’t currently made by women or with us in mind.

When I was younger and just starting out, I sometimes felt like I had to wear mental armour to go into the office. Like Iron Man, I had to suit up every day and adopt a different – tougher – persona to get by.

Deep breath.

Inner self buried.

Broad shoulders (sometimes padded – Dynasty was very big at the time)


It’s not that the people I worked with were particularly awful. It’s just that I don’t think anyone realised to what extent the world of work was and is shaped by old rules.

And you know what?

It’s so tiring.

It’s so boring.

An it’s so not something I want future generations of girls and women to feel they are going to have to do too.

To survive and thrive of course we need personal resilience, but I also believe we need to change the way the world works for the better.

As Nina Gunson of Sheffield High says, “Happiness is not ready-made – be prepared to be hands-on in its assembly.”

Thankfully, the world is changing, and companies that can’t or won’t tap into the next generation will not thrive. Organisations that don’t adapt will not survive because young people will not allow them to. And they don’t deserve to. My message to them, to paraphrase the Shawshank Redemption, is “Get busy changing, or get busy dying.”

Girls and women are already starting to make their own rules, making a difference and making the world a better place. We need to rebuild companies and organisations from the inside.

Look at Greta Thunberg – who would have thought that a 16-year-old girl could bring climate emergency to the top of every world leader’s list of priorities. She has mobilised a generation to fight climate change. And she doesn’t just talk the talk, as her determination to sail to New York to attend the United Nations summit on climate action shows. When she is attacked for her youth, or her looks, or her autism, or what others see as her naïveté, she is not thrown, she only comes back stronger.

Perfectly encapsulated by the new rule from Hadrian Briggs at Royal High School Bath: “Develop great powers by taking great responsibilities.”

Or look at Marley Dias, who didn’t see enough girls who looked like herself in the books she was given at school. She started to distribute literature with black girl leads when she was just ten years old, and in the last four years has distributed something like 12,000 books.[10]

Then there’s Justine Roberts, who set up a website – Mumsnet – that is visited by millions every month and whose forums have helped and supported tens of thousands facing every challenge imaginable. And she has harnessed those voices to campaign for better postnatal care, and for better care for women who miscarry. The Mumsnet ‘Let Girls be girls’ campaign targeted retailers selling products which exploit children’s sexuality – and stores were falling over themselves in their pledge to stop doing so.

Or consider Alice Walpole, an alumna of Norwich High School, who is working for the UN Mission in Iraq to support efforts to bring reconciliation, peace and stability to that troubled nation. With her impossible schedule, she has pledge to be involved in our Inspiring Females Summit every year because she believes so strongly in our mission and what we are doing to equip girls for the future”.

And let’s not forget Dr Jess Wade, an alumna of South Hampstead High School, whose work improving the representation of women in science is helping dozens of young female scientists make progress, and who is even better-known for improving the representation of women scientists on Wikipedia, read by millions worldwide. And she takes no prisoners on Twitter either, recently saying “for the ONE MILLIONTH TIME, girls do not drop physics for A-Level because it’s “hard” but because of stereotyping, lack of career guidance, bias and a nationwide shortage of specialist science teachers.”

The girls in our schools are facing much longer working lives in a far less linear world than previous generations have enjoyed.

And a longer working life means that we can’t afford to limit our learning to the first quarter of our lives.

The key skills to being able to thrive over such a long working life are going to be confidence, flexibility, creativity, and life-long learning.

Closing the confidence gap for girls will ultimately close the gender pay gap too. Girlguiding’s annual girls’ attitudes survey shows that one of the big reasons girls are put off being leaders is because they don’t always feel they have the confidence – what better reason for girls’ schools to thrive?

As Rebecca Mahoney, Head of Birkenhead High School Academy says, “Stop apologising. Stand strong, be proud and believe in yourself – then everyone else will!”


Agents of change

The most important thing that a great education can give a girl is the ability to be her own agent of change. Education gives you control over your own future. It is quite simply that powerful.

Over the course of your lives you will find that you have to reinvent, relearn, relaunch, and redefine yourself many times.

And to support you, our schools are going to have to reinvent, relearn, relaunch, and redefine ourselves too.

We have to create the environments that will enable you to thrive.

That’s why we’re pioneering the Future Schools strategy at Brighton Girls, a whole-school programme aimed at developing the creative, technological and digital skills of our pupils. We are investing in the curriculum, teaching, technology and classrooms to prepare our girls for the future. School staff and students have been deeply involved in the planning phase. To kick-start this programme, we’ve created some dynamic learning spaces over the summer.

It’s why Suzie Longstaff and her team at Putney High School are pioneering the biophilic classroom, a scientific study to help concentration and wellbeing by bringing the outside in to the classroom.

That’s why Croydon High School is making enterprise technology a core part of the curriculum[19]. This totally bespoke subject combines essential computing skills, such as programming, with skills needed in the workplace such as project management, teamwork, problem solving and – crucially – creativity.

Recently, their Year 5 girls entered a Raspberry Pi competition and came up with a brilliant Talking Bus Stop concept to help blind or partially-sighted people. A department for transport manager heard them presenting and invited them in to talk about their idea. Which shows that a class of fearless nine-year-olds can come up with ideas that a 39-year-old might possibly want to steal.

We also share best practice beyond the GDST through our partnership with FutureLearn, offering online courses on girl friendly-learning that are accessed by teachers worldwide – because this movement to ensure girls change the world is a global one.


My new rules

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind financially independent and clear about your own worth”

You belong in places where decisions are being made.

“If plan A doesn’t work out, make plan B even better.”

GDST schools are places where girls learn without limits, so that when you leave us you have the confidence and the wherewithal to lead lives without the limits currently imposed on your progress.

It’s fair to say there’s a spring in our step and the wind at our backs. Girls’ education has never been more important because it has purpose and purchase in a world that can only benefit from the contribution these girls will make to a better future.

So let’s embrace these new rules so they can get on with making it a better world for everyone.

I have no doubt that women will be at the heart of transforming the world for the better.

So I invite you to be part of this bold, brave, brilliant mission for a better world.