Breaking boundaries

Towards the end of last term, I ventured to London Bridge for the annual GSA Conference with a focus on Future Female. I always relish attending these events because they resonate so strongly with our values, being future forward and encouraging our students to be bold. The impact from a number of the sessions has stayed with me over the last month and given me plenty of food for thought. 

I particularly enjoyed the session that focused on young women forging exciting careers in areas which traditionally have been male led. It reminded me of the start of my career both as a lawyer in the construction industry and my first senior leadership role in teaching in an all boys’ school, where I was at one point the only woman in the team. I am thankful that this was never an impediment to me in my career, but recognise that this is not always the case. This is why the education our students receive here, which gives them confidence and self belief is crucial to ensuring that women never feel their gender goes against them in their career. 

The session was led by Hero Brown who set up the hugely successful lifestyle blog, Muddy Stilettos, after the birth of her children, as she could see a gap in the market for professional women wanting more information about their local areas. However, it also allowed her to set up a business that could work on her own terms and with an all female staff this flexibility makes it possible for professional women to continue to forge their careers whilst balancing family life. 

I was particularly impressed listening to Dr Jess Wade who is a physicist at Imperial College London, she is determined to get wider participation in physics from women and also people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. She highlighted the importance of diversity of thought in science and reminded us that not all science is undertaken by men in the Western world, though the focus sometimes is too often limited in scope. To combat that she has started writing Wikipedia pages on neglected female scientists; she has written thousands of them! 

It was also wonderful to hear from Lydia Garratt who is campaigning to ensure that women know that the banking industry can be for them. Not only that but she now manages a portfolio that supports women in business with female CEOs and female friendly cultures, and filtering out those that have bad practices. She felt that the issue for women in banking was not a glass ceiling, but the whisper in the girl’s head saying she is not up to it. She challenges young women to try things they think seem beyond them.

Girls in particular are susceptible to gender priming as research in the early 2000s showed; when young women are told they are not good at maths, their results in tests decrease. It shows the devastating impact stereotyping can have on their attitudes to academic domains and their achievements.This is why the role of all girls’ education is critical in young women such as by breaking down barriers in what have traditionally been seen as men’s professions. Lastly we heard from Zena El Farra, who had a high-flying career in banking, but subsequently became an entrepreneur setting up her own art business which focuses on wellbeing, who talked about leaning into your weaknesses. 

What I thought was extremely interesting about these inspirational young women was that they didn’t always have linear paths to where they have ended up. Dr Jess Wade did an art foundation course before going into Physics and said that you need creativity and communication skills to be a great scientist, along with having an international perspective and the ability to work in a team. Zena El Farra also agreed that having a broad education is beneficial. And Lydia Garratt proudly advocates for women going into banking without having studied economics or related courses beforehand, having studied politics herself at university. They all highlighted how having broad interests and skills throughout their education had a clear impact in their current professional lives and in their career paths so far. This approach resonates so clearly with the philosophy of the IB, which they all agreed was a great approach. 

It was so inspiring hearing these young women talk so passionately about their careers and I am sure many BGS alumnae are doing the same. As we start a new year I feel it is a good time to adopt the advice from the film director Katie Aselton: “I really want women to throw their shoulders back and stand up straight and use their big girl voices and not feel like they’re compromising their femininity to be strong and smart!.” 

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