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What’s in a Title?

This was a question girls across the country, including GDST girls, considered as part of a national survey about girls’ attitudes to the future.

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) worked with research agency YouthSight to produce the Girls’ Futures Report and has provoked a national conversation about women and their attitudes towards leadership. In short, girls would much rather show leadership than be a leader. Titles alone didn’t cut it.

I will come shortly to the ‘GDST difference’ but the whole point of the survey was to look at girls’ attitudes more widely. The subsequent media headlines focused on the relatively low levels of interest girls had in being ‘the boss’. They wanted to do a job they enjoyed, they wanted to do something purposeful, they wanted a sensible balance in their lives – but they were less interested in leadership for leadership’s sake. They were far more interested in being respected than in being the boss.

What to make of this? Firstly, it should be a source of great pride to all of us in GDST that our educational family is setting the agenda in this way in its 150th year. Secondly, the views girls had about work-life balance seem to correlate with what we know about Gen Z as a whole – young men and women. Employers are already thinking about how to engage a new generation of employees who expect a more sensible balance between the different parts of their lives. In fairness, women have been asking for this for really quite a long time.

Thirdly, girls just seemed so sensible in their responses and I applaud them! They asked what the point was of being the boss if you really didn’t enjoy it. Aristotle would be very proud of them. They had a strong sense that happiness was more important than mere titles. I suspect the reason the press picked up on the leadership angle had rather a lot to do with the timing of the report… in the middle of the party conference season.

They had a strong sense that happiness was more important than mere titles.

And therein lies a challenge for all of us who are leaders. We do actually need young women to lead, whether in an official capacity or not. We need changing leadership models for a changing world – more collaborative, more open to new ways of doing things. One of the aspects of the ‘GDST difference’ was that GDST girls were more likely to want to take risks, more likely to seek innovative and creative solutions to problems, and more likely to want to take on a leadership role. I know what we at school can do, and do do, to encourage them to show leadership – not least our new GDST LEAD Diploma.

But what about at national and international level? What can we do to encourage girls to take the lead? They need not just the confidence and the skills but also the role models. When we look around at world leaders, there aren’t many inspiring role models who come to mind. In the business world, leadership remains dominated by men. And even in schools, where female teachers outnumber male teachers, at the top it’s still more likely to be a man. That’s still particularly true in the independent sector as a whole, though not in girls’ schools. Anyway, I doubt Heads are the first port of call to provide the inspiration girls need. Their peers are often a more effective source of that.

Right now, the women our pupils admire most are the women of Iran who are showing unbelievable courage in protesting against their oppressive political regime. These are not women with a leadership title, far from it. These are women who are risking their lives to protest against decades of oppression of women in Iran. I said titles may not matter but symbols certainly do and in this case the hijab which Iranian protesters have ripped off in solidarity with 22-year old Mahsa Amini. The world has seen videos of Iranian women cutting their hair and burning their headscarves to cries of ‘Women, life, freedom’. Iranian schoolgirls have been protesting in school playgrounds and in the streets.

Girls at South Hampstead have been very moved by scenes in Iran. There has been far more interest in this story than in any party conference. And that is because leaders are not necessarily equated with leadership. Leadership takes courage. It takes integrity and authenticity. It takes a mindset that does not just accept the status quo. And sometimes, as we see in Iran, it takes huge personal risk. The situation in Iran remains very charged and fragile and we all watch on in hope that the courage of these women will end not in catastrophe but with change.

Leadership takes courage… a mindset that does not just accept the status quo.

Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.  

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