This week we held our annual Inspiring Women Careers Conference and I am so grateful to the amazing women who took part this year (*the list of speakers can be seen below). To me, this is one of the most important events in the school year.
One of the reasons why I like this event so much is because it is a tangible connection between what we stand for here at the school and the ‘real world’ beyond our gates. We are all about giving the girls here the best possible foundation on which to go forward and play their full part in society, and of course, the path that they choose in their working lives is a major part of that.
When I think about the career choices facing today’s girls, I can’t help also looking back at how those choices have changed in a relatively short period of time. Last year, in 2018, we celebrated 100 years since women got the vote; but there has been a tremendously fast pace of change in their experience of working life over that period too.
We hear a lot about how more opportunities for women were opened up by the Second World War in particular. That is true, but it’s also true that when the men returned after the War, women were largely expected to revert back to the roles that they had traditionally filled – most of them being low paid and very much the secondary employment in the household.
The result was that, even by the early 1950s, many employers operated a ‘Marriage bar’, whereby married women were excluded from certain occupations like teaching and clerical jobs (but not the lower paid jobs) and those who were working were sacked upon marriage.
Jumping ahead to 1960, although 38% of married women worked, they were still routinely being sacked when they got pregnant and continued to be paid less than men even if they did the same jobs. Many of us have stories from our female relatives of this happening in practice – we’re not talking ancient history here.
I don’t just want to look back, however. If we look to the future, we see so many new kinds of job appearing, and new and more flexible ways of working are becoming more and more accepted. We are getting used to the idea that many of the girls attending today’s event will have ‘portfolio careers’, as part of the ‘gig economy’. All of this sounds likely to be a good thing, but how will it actually affect the progress towards equality of opportunity (and pay) that we have been on over the last few decades?
Many of the changes that have happened over the past 100 years were won after hard-fought and well-organised struggles. That could become more difficult if the workplace is more fragmented – though of course there are also many more communication channels and ways to make an impact than there ever were before.
I think that one thing is for sure: the now-traditional graduate career model – maybe within a well-known, large institution – will still be an important choice for many. But it will probably not be the only choice a person makes in the course of their career, and many will opt for a different path from the start.
Some other aspects of the world of work that I think are undeniable and which were discussed over the course of the event:
• There is still a relative shortage of women in STEM jobs; IT is particularly still a largely male preserve.
• There is still a ‘glass ceiling’ in many organisations: almost all large businesses now recruit more women than men, but fewer of them rise to the top of the organisation.
And, perhaps, most significantly of all:
• There is still an expectation that women will be the ones who give the care – whether it’s to children or to our ageing population.
Until issues like these are addressed and until we really start to see society’s attitudes change, my fear is that there will always be a brake on the extent to which many women are able to take up the opportunities that should be open to them, and to show their full potential.
We all need to remain focused and determined to make sure that we keep moving forward. The Inspiring Women Conference was a wonderful way to do just that.
Dr Felicia Kirk
Chairwoman: Lynne Copp – Managing Director, The Worklife Company
Anushka Chaudhry – Consultant Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon
Lisa Mann – Senior Lecturer, Conde Nast College of Fashion and Design
Catherine Mealing-Jones – Director of Growth, UK Space Agency
Lucinda Orr – Of Counsel, Enyo Law
Sarah Pinch – Managing Director, Pinch Point Communications
Sarah Soar – Head of Investment Management, JM Finn.