Girls make up 51% of the population, yet according to the Institute for Government, March 2022, women account for only 35% of our MPs and just 29% of peers in the Lords. And although the UK is now second in international rankings for women’s representation on FSTE 100 company boards, with 40% of positions held by women (up from a quarter of that number 10 years ago), only eight of those 100 companies have a female CEO.
Since women gained limited suffrage in 1918, the majority of policy and law has been written by men and reflects their bias. So how can we even the playing field and ensure fair representation in politics and the working world? We need to encourage girls to voice their opinions in current affairs and politics in a party political agnostic way, break the bias and find their voice.
Girls are less likely to voice their opinions – gender bias can start young: girls are told to sit nicely, behave and conform while it’s the accepted norm for boys to be noisy and boisterous. This continues as girls grow up. In the adult world, vocal men are described as ‘determined to get their point across’ whereas vocal women are just ‘bossy’ or ‘shrill’.
I grew up in an Asian family, the eldest of four sisters. My parents never told me my opinion was not appropriate, whereas other grown-ups suggested I was ‘too vocal for a girl’. As an adult, people still make assumptions about me as I’m small, Asian and look young – and sometimes this still gets in the way.
Breaking the bias is about recognising preconceptions that are hidden in our minds so we can bring them to the fore and question them in order to break that bias ourselves. People make assumptions about students based on their background or family situation. It is sometimes assumed that if you attend an independent school you can’t possibly face challenges.
… vocal men are described as ‘determined to get their point across’ whereas vocal women are just ‘bossy’ or ‘shrill’
Skills for Success
Communication skills are essential for success. To make a change we must make sure girls have the tools they need to find their voice and share their ideas and opinions. Alongside the necessary qualifications – and maybe even more important – is what the individual brings to the job. Girls need to have the confidence and ability to articulate their thoughts and ideas, share them and be heard – from discussions in meetings to representing your department or organisation, to speaking in parliament.
At Heathfield, we recognise the importance of building confidence, communication skills and an open-minded approach to new experiences. We want our students to be critical thinkers who can discuss and view issues from different perspectives. A dialogic teaching approach encourages ongoing talk between teachers and students, discussing ideas and misinterpretations, rather than solely focusing on written work or the more passive model of the teacher presenting and the students just listening.
The more opportunity and guidance the students have in how to share their ideas, the more expert they will become.
It’s important our students understand that what they learn in school is connected and resonates with the outside world.
To ensure our young women are equipped for the future and informed about politics and current issues, our Careers and Outreach department hosts different programmes to promote discussion, debate and public speaking. All the students prepare for the forums in which they will perform.
Speakers’ Corner is an opportunity for students to speak publicly about a topic they feel passionate about – either in support or opposition. Students talk for two minutes without questions, just being young people with an opinion and declaiming about it, like Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
The topic that resonates most with the students will then be used for our school debate in the summer term, when opinions and ideas are challenged and debated. Later in the Michaelmas term, in celebration of Parliament Week, we host an annual ‘Question Time’ with a student panel taking topical questions from the audience, which includes local politicians from the three main political parties.
At Heathfield, we recognise the importance of building confidence, communication skills and an open-minded approach to new experiences
Our speaker programme helps introduce new ideas and broaden experiences for our students as they learn about the world of work. A variety of professionals are invited to come and speak about their work and experience – people love to give back, so it’s quite easy to find speakers. During the talk they explain what their work entails; for example, what an interior designer does, what skills are needed and also about their own journey – how they arrived at where they are today. The students find it fascinating, and it helps highlight skills like resilience, collaboration and networking – essential skills, common across a spectrum of careers, and repeatedly mentioned by our visiting speakers, because these skills are the most important in the world of work.
As a boarding school, we can organise these sessions in the evening. The speaker joins us for our evening meal, and we sit down together and begin discussions in a professional environment. The students absorb the experience, view how conversations are developed and how to engage with new people and make the conversation flow.
The more experienced older students act as role models for the younger children. It’s very natural and relaxed.
After dinner the speaker presents in the theatre and the students are invited to ask questions. Initially only myself, the headmistress and the assistant head asked any questions, but the students’ confidence quickly grew with each visitor, and now they are eager to ask. After the presentation we encourage students to develop and practise their networking skills – approach the speaker, introduce themselves, ask more questions and express how much they enjoyed the presentation and request the speaker’s email. A follow-up thank you email and they have begun to build their network. It’s incredibly empowering for the students, and the speakers also find the whole experience very rewarding.
As the events are scheduled outside lesson time, there is no impact on the daily timetable or other teachers. It also means that we can invite other schools – if there is an empty seat I want it to be filled with a student who would love to have that opportunity. Visiting students, along with their parents, can join us for the presentation session starting after dinner. When they arrive they can have a cup of tea and come down and join in, with the same access to the speaker as our students.
If we want to break the bias, we need to be sure we are building the skills, knowledge and understanding that our young people need to make informed decisions, think critically and raise their voices for their thoughts and opinions to be heard.
We must teach them to first look at their own assumptions, bring the bias to the fore and question it – to achieve equality there can be no automatic assumptions.
It is still true today that many politicians running in elections tend to come from specific income strata and there is systematic bias in the opinions ultimately represented in parliament.
We must recognise that alongside gender, there is also bias surrounding socio-economic background, religion, heritage, political views etc – we will only be able to develop more representative policies if we come together to make the laws.
We need to bring all parts of society together – men and women – recognising differences and bringing them to the table.
Rushi Millns is director of careers and outreach at Heathfield School, Ascot, Berks. She is also deputy national chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO), which encourages and supports women in politics and public life.
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