Alex Hems: Head's Blog Nov 23, 2018
Inspiring Futures was the theme for the Girls' Schools Association Conference earlier this week, which feels very apt for a gathering of Heads responsible for educating thousands of girls and young women across the UK. In her opening address this year's president, Gwen Byrom reminded us that four years ago, research commissioned by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that just 1 per cent of parents said they believed engineering was a suitable career for their daughter, compared with 11 per cent who would consider it for their son. Engineering of course is not for everyone, but it is a field that is crying out for more talented women. They will be discouraged from applying if they do not believe it is a career in which women can flourish, and they will not be equipped to apply if they are not coming through our education system with the qualifications in maths and the sciences that they will need. We are fortunate in girls' schools that no-one ever need to be deterred from taking Physics or Maths for example, because they might be outnumbered by boys in the classroom. We know too that unless children are taught by inspiring and highly qualified specialist teachers in these subjects, which tragically is not consistently the case across the UK, they are less likely to want to pursue the courses that they might need in order to succeed. The young women in our schools today will be the influencers of the future, and the experiences that we offer them now will shape their lives, and through them the world in which they live. Research tells us that children's perception of gender roles and stereotypes develops at a very young age, and so it is incumbent on us as parents and as educators to ensure that we offer to girls positive female role models at every stage in their development.
I am writing this fresh from listening to Gabby Logan speak at St George's about her career. A familiar voice on Radio 5 Live and on BBC Sport, from the Olympics to the Six Nations, Gabby started as an aspiring tennis player, who then transferred to gymnastics and represented England at the Commonwealth Games. She spoke of the moment when she realised that she was 'a woman in a man's world', and how pursuing her dual loves of sport and broadcasting had led her to this position, virtually without realising it, until she encountered the prejudice that kept her, initially, on the periphery of the male bastions of football and rugby. She had excellent advice for young women today, seeking to live their dreams: be flexible. She changed from tennis to gymnastics because a shortage of local tennis courts made it impossible for her to continue to play year-round. By pursuing opportunity in the shape of experience on local radio she made things happen rather than waiting for life to come to her. This was the same message that we heard from the remarkable Judy Dalton, earlier this term; if you want something to happen, get up and do something about it. Take opportunities when they come, and make them work for you. This is as true today as it was in the 1960s when she set out on her tennis career and started to campaign for equal rights for women in sport. It is surely true in any walk of life; determination, imagination and sheer hard work will take us a very long way. I would add self-belief to that list, and that is a quality that grows from within, but can be nurtured by the encouragement and example of those we see around us. At school we seek to provide a variety of strong role-models for our girls; whether sportswomen like Judy Dalton, broadcasters like Gabby Logan, or scientists such as Dr Helen Czerski who will speak during STEM week in early December and Dr Kimberly Hambuchen who spoke to us about her work for NASA. Role models inspire us and show us the way ahead. Most of us will remember too the moment when someone senior to us in our particular field indicated that they believed in us or maybe gave some valuable words of encouragement which fuelled self-belief. Mentors give us the confidence to take crucial steps and perhaps to persist when the way seems blocked. This I believe is something that women need to be better at doing for one another. The women we have heard from this term have shown where a combination of hard work, tenacity and passion can lead, a message for us all at any point in our careers.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh