On our terms

Cheryl Giovannoni’s speech to the GDST Summit, 13 June 2018.

Each year we come together as an organisation committed to shaping the future of girls’ education. We invite colleagues and friends of the GDST as well as leaders in education and beyond, provocateurs and change makers, to create a day of inspiration and conversation as we infuse our movement with vitality, energy and purpose. We have an exciting day ahead of us and I’m sure you will enjoy hearing from all our speakers, including some of our girls and young alumnae this afternoon.

If the girls in our schools are to storm new frontiers like never before, we have to equip them to change the world and create a better future, for the benefit of all.


Celebrating difference

We are living in an increasingly homogenised world that seeks to iron out the differences between men and women. But women and men are different, and we should celebrate that.

Now, I don’t mean that women’s brains are different from men’s – even the most experienced neuroscientist would be hard-pressed to look at a brain scan and tell you if it’s male or female.

But we know that from birth – from before birth, actually, if the sex of the unborn baby is known – girls and boys are socialised differently, spoken to differently and treated differently. That impacts on how we grow and develop; it impacts on how we experience life and how we interact with others; and it impacts on how others see us and how we see ourselves, how we value ourselves, and how we approach the world around us.

So, by the time they reach school age, girls learn differently. When they reach adulthood, women lead differently. And when women do well, they succeed differently. And more often than not, women want different things from life.

I was particularly inspired to read about Penny Streeter in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago, a self-made multi-millionaire who, as a penniless single mother living in a refuge for the homeless with her two children, set up her own recruitment business providing 24/7 nursing staff – she’s now sitting very comfortably on the Sunday Times rich list.


Women and leadership

So what do I mean when I say that women lead differently? According to one study, in general, women exhibit many of the traits associated with effective leadership — that is, effective communication and delegation, a tendency to empower all team members, creative problem solving, collaboration, consensus building — and they are more likely to adopt these leadership styles than men.

We need to create a modern world where these powerful feminine traits are equally valued and expressed by both men and women.

That’s not yet a message that’s getting through to our children and young people. I want to work to make leadership a truly gender-rich concept. And with just 25% of senior leadership roles held by women globally, there is a long way to go.

This means convincing male leaders – both current and future – that boardroom “trial by combat” rarely gets the best results. To those who see themselves not so much as leaders of complex organisations but gladiators striding into the arena – this has to stop. The meeting room is not the colosseum. And, frankly, you are not Russell Crowe.

Recently, in an article in the Guardian, some of the excuses from FTSE350 companies with few or no women on their board were outrageous:

“We have one woman already on the board, so we are done – it’s someone else’s turn” or my favourite: “I don’t think women fit comfortably into the board environment – the issues covered are extremely complex”.

But one quote that speaks perfectly to our mission and why what we do matters more than ever before as educators of girls: “We need to build the pipeline from the bottom – there just aren’t enough senior women in this sector”.

But there will be – ask any of our 25 heads around the country, and they are working on developing the likes of girls such as Zoe (right).

It’s good news that there is some progress – in the past decade the number of all male FTSE350 boards fell from 152 to ten. And we know that women directors change the way boards work – for the better; that companies with gender diverse leadership make more money; and that increasing the number of women on a team increases its collective intelligence.

This is where educators play an instrumental role in helping a new generation appreciate their talents and gain the confidence to make an impact. It’s all those wonderful Heads, senior leadership teams and teachers in our schools we have to thank for inspiring their pupils every single day.

As I’ve said before, we don’t believe in wrapping girls in cotton wool; on the contrary, with our help they are developing skills that will make them far stronger, resilient, fearless and more spirited than ever before as they pave the way for those who will follow in their footsteps.

And make no mistake, work is important to this generation of girls.

We partnered recently with YouGov to survey our own GDST students, and over 3,500 girls, from Year 5 upward, responded. When we asked them to choose one life goal, twice as many chose a dream job over travelling the world or having a family.[1]

But we also need to recognise that the world of work was not made by women, and nor was it made for women. So, we have to change that world, so it works better for everyone.  Here’s a reminder of why that is more important than ever.

I believe that today’s successful women have often succeeded because they have played by the rules, and taken on men at their own game.

The successful women of tomorrow will be the ones who change the game and make their own rules.

When we talk about changing the game, about supporting girls and young women to be the leaders of tomorrow, our mission is to reach as many girls as possible, to give them opportunities for leadership in their schools and beyond.

It goes back to our roots really: the GDST was founded by four pioneering women, who believed there was a need to educate girls when no one else thought we mattered. GDST schools offered an academic education, a far cry from what was taught in ladies’ academies of the time. Today, we work hard to ensure that able girls from all social backgrounds have the opportunity to benefit from a forward-thinking and empowering GDST education.

When it comes to means-tested bursaries, we punch well above our weight. We educate just over three per cent of pupils in the Independent Schools Council, but account for over seven and a half percent of full bursaries. We are committed to increasing this, targeting more financial support to those girls and families who most need it.

But ultimately, what matter isn’t just the fantastic education girls get in GDST schools, but what they do with the fruits of that learning when they go out into the world: how they go on to change the world for the better.

That is why we are thrilled to see so many of our alumnae giving back, in so many ways, to their school communities. Giving back, moreover, to girls and women at all stages of their careers, through mentoring and other support.


Women and technology

We are living through a seismic technology revolution, and it’s not yet clear what impact that will have on the lives the pupils currently in our schools will lead, and the careers they will be engaged in.

Sir Anthony Seldon has written about how “algorithms and artificial intelligence are outperforming humans on most aspects of logical and linguistic intelligence”, and that “the skills around which we have designed our schools … will be rendered redundant within the next 20 years.”

I, for one, am far more optimistic than Sir Anthony that our schools will embrace technology like AI to help us develop truly bespoke learning as we prepare pupils for the future world of work.

We have to work on the basis that AI is augmenting, supplementing and enhancing what humans are doing – not replacing it. It does not bring empathy, nor make judgements. Sterility will never replace creativity.

Now, let me ask you a question: does the fact that AI assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana adopt female personas reinforce gender stereotypes of female subservience? Especially when they make their way out of our homes and into our offices and workspaces?

As robots and AI learn from humans and extrapolate from current data, there’s a good chance they’ll also adopt the biases – gender, racial and socio-economic – that exist in society. The real danger is that, as AI is being developed, we run the risk of a lack of diversity on many fronts.

And the more we come to rely on AI, the more we’ll be affected by these biases, to the potential detriment of many groups, but women in particular, I would bet.

The debate around AI is not really a debate about technology but a debate about where power resides. Those with power are predominantly large corporations, primarily concerned with making profit, and currently run by white men.

Regulation has not kept pace – so there’s a risk of harm being caused not through malicious intent but simply by ‘not being very thoughtful’. The ethical side of AI is too often forgotten with the pace at which change is happening. So it should go without saying that the greater the diversity of voices, the more chance we have of challenging stereotypes and unthinking approaches.

So, it’s important that more women are engaged in designing the future through technology. It’s a job we cannot leave to men alone. When only 17 percent of tech professionals are women, we have a problem.

But it’s not just the job of the few women working in the sector to programme AI to overcome gender bias. It’s the job of all the people currently developing these new technologies – who, let’s face it, at this point are mostly men – it’s their job to be aware of the potential for bias and ensure they factor it in when writing the programmes and the protocols.

I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg would not want his daughter to grow up in a world with no female input into the technology that is shaping it. Nor do I imagine he would be happy believing she hadn’t the best possible chance of being the next Mark Zuckerberg herself. Or being subjected to the gender pay gap that currently exists at her father’s company.

In short, if our future is one where the world is run by our robot overlords, let’s at least make sure there are equal numbers of robot overladies.


Women and the economy

Gender equality is the key to the future; it’s potentially the single biggest difference we can make to the world economy. If women around the world achieved economic equality with men, it would contribute $28 trillion to the global economy, roughly the size of the economies of the United States and China combined. Women are the ultimate economic accelerator.

It’s not just in the area of technology that men should be championing a better, more gender equal world. What makes a difference is when our new head of Newcastle High School for Girls, Michael Tippett, says in an interview “in education, as in all walks of life, we need more men championing gender equality. Men make up 50 per cent and we need to demand equality for the other 50 per cent; equality means equality.”

And similarly Tom Mylne, head of Streatham & Clapham Prep School, who tweeted “I advertised for a class teacher and hardly any of the applicants are men. When I advertised for a deputy head, half the applicants were men with many of them having little experience but great and, I suspect, speculative ambition. I appointed a highly impressive woman.”

That is HE FOR SHE in action. That’s being the change we all want to see in the world.

Over the years we have heard many justifications of boys’ schools going co-ed. It’s notable that those making the case for co-education tend to focus on improved results for boys, academically and socially. They rarely mention benefits to girls because they know there is no real evidence that girls achieve more or feel better from having boys around in the classroom.

But perhaps they have completed our brilliant GDST MOOC on Girls’ Education and now think they share our 150 year’s hard won expertise in Teaching Strategies That Develop Confidence, Resilience and Collaboration in girls?

What could be more important right now than a thriving, forward-looking and thoroughly modern and bespoke education for girls that is tailored to meet their individual needs, that helps set them up to play their part in the world, all in service of true gender equality?

We will work tirelessly to help GDST girls overcome any limitations imposed on them. To be progressive and pioneering. To reshape the world for the better. To help them learn without limits.

And the world is going to have to listen. The priorities of the workforce are changing. The new generation is already active. They want to work for companies and organisations that reflect their values.

With the rise of the millennials in the workforce, commitments to more than just the bottom line will be increasingly important: half of millennials would choose purposeful work over a high salary, and two thirds want to work for a company that makes a difference to the world.

These are the young women who will lead and innovate in a world where their vital contribution will make it a far better place.

Women will shape the future. For the benefit of all.

When we asked our girls if they were optimistic about their future, over three quarters said yes.[2] And eight out of ten agree that they have a bright future ahead of them.[3] We have a duty to support that optimism, not just equip them for the future, but create new frontiers from where they will shine.

These are exciting times for girls. They are optimistic. They want action. They are taking action. The women they admire aren’t famous for being famous, but known for their social action. When we asked them to name a woman whose actions or achievements they admired, the top three answers (apart from ‘my mum’) were Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai, and Michelle Obama.[4]

But my favourite answer to that question was “Every single woman on the planet – they are all amazing in their own way”.

This is a movement. We’d better get behind it because they will be creating and storming new frontiers that we can only imagine.

We all know the story about the NASA janitor who, when asked what his job was replied “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon”. What would the equivalent be for the GDST, and for girls’ education? What would we want all our staff to answer if we asked them a similar question?

I’m calling on everyone here today to create new frontiers: bridging politics, business and, of course, education.

This year, we have remembered the suffragettes and their motto, “Deeds not words”.

But let’s hear it from the girls themselves, all 25 representatives of the spirit that is the GDST.



[1] When asked, which one, if any, of the following life goals would you most like to achieve if you had to choose, 36% chose to ‘getting my dream job”, 19% chose ‘travelling the world’ and 18% chose ‘having a family”. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,743 girls from GDST. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th and 28th May 2018.  The survey was carried out online.

[2] Precise figure is 78%. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,743 girls from GDST. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th and 28th May 2018.  The survey was carried out online.

[3] Precise figure is 79%. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,743 girls from GDST. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th and 28th May 2018.  The survey was carried out online.

[4] When asked to name one woman whose actions or achievements inspire you, 323 named Emma Watson, 250 named Malala Yousafzai and 189 named Michelle Obama. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 3,743 girls from GDST. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th and 28th May 2018.  The survey was carried out online.