Women and Leadership

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In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.’ Sheryl Sandberg (2009)

In the Sixth Form one of the key characteristics that we aim to develop in our students is that of leadership. This is an area that I have become particularly interested in since embarking on a Masters in Leadership last year. Throughout my studies I have been able to explore the concept of leadership in a variety of contexts and, having always taught in girls’ schools, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about what it means to be a female leader. In my role of Head of Sixth Form, each and every day, I am able to see girls excelling as leaders throughout the school; age and gender are no limitation for these students and they make an invaluable contribution to the St Mary’s community. However, it hasn’t always been the case that women have been able to fulfil their potential as leaders, and there is still a long way to go until we are seen as equal to men in this area.

Over the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to read ‘Bluestockings’ by Jane Robinson (2009) and I was hooked from the minute that I picked it up. So just who are the Bluestockings? Well, these women were the first of Britain’s female students to bravely enrol at university towards the end of the nineteenth century. This was a group of women from wildly different backgrounds who had just one thing in common; their passion for learning. And, if they hadn’t been determined leaders who were prepared to step into the unknown, in what were very difficult circumstances, then it is very probable that we would not be here today providing our female students with an education that prepares them for university and beyond.

In the UVI Form House we are delighted that the girls have a brilliant range of offers from excellent universities but it is worth remembering just how different things might have been. When the Bluestockings first said that they wanted to have access to Higher Education people were incredibly worried about what would happen to women as a consequence; at the time the female brain was considered five ounces lighter than the male brain. There was much debate as to whether higher level study would make women dull-minded or over-excitable, would they become promiscuous or even infertile as result? Surely women’s bodies were not strong enough to reproduce and engage the mind? Yet, despite this serious opposition they stood their ground and paved the way for the generations who have followed them since. One student, Jessie Emmerson, claimed that ‘so greatly did the responsibility of keeping up the honour and dignity of my sex press upon me…that I hardly dared address a word to anyone around me. One false step and for all I knew they would never allow another woman student.’ The Bluestockings included women who dressed up as men in order to be taught, were not allowed to officially graduate from university despite completing their degrees and, in some cases, had to be escorted by a man at all times! Understanding how difficult things were for the first female ‘undergraduettes’ helps us realise that we have a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities afforded to us.

So let’s jump forward to now. How different is today when we look at women as leaders? In many parts of the world, women are better off today than ever before with increased opportunities, yet despite all the progress women have made, men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in government and industry, and women are still not heard equally in the decisions that most affect our lives. This is something that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, addresses in her book ‘Lean In’. It has been 120 years since the Bluestockings first went to university and had a vision of a world where men and women are equal but we are still trying to make this vision a reality. The blunt truth, despite what Beyoncé might say, is that men still run the world. Of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women. Women hold just 20% of seats in parliaments globally and when we look at other sectors of the economy, the statistics are even worse. None of the figures are close to 50%. Progress is stalling and it is important that we ensure that the promise of equality is realised. So why is this the case?

Inevitably it is a combination of external and internal factors and, whilst our ability to control the external factors is limited, if we make ourselves aware of the internal factors then we can work towards overcoming them and promoting ourselves as leaders. Three of the most important ones which Sandberg identifies are:
1. We underestimate our own abilities.
2. Women don’t negotiate for themselves when they have the opportunity to do so.
3. We don’t own our successes.

We need to ‘lean in’ to, not step back from our leadership potential. We owe it to the Bluestockings to recognise that women have a right to lead and we are capable of being very good at it.

So how does what I have written about – the women who fought for their right to higher education and the imbalance in male and female leaders on a global scale -link to what happens here at St Mary’s? For me, it is quite simple. St Mary’s provides our students with the perfect environment in which they can learn to be leaders. Free from gender stereotypes our students are able to hone their leadership talents as they learn not just how to shoulder responsibility but also how to take risks and inspire others. As I write this we are in the process of electing our new Head Girl’s Team and every LVI Form student will have the opportunity to serve on this team. We are confident that they will all rise to the challenges ahead and are excited about the decisions they will make in their allocated roles. This experience is fantastic preparation for the future and, upon leaving St Mary’s, they will leave equipped with the necessary skills to go out and challenge some of the aforementioned stereotypes and statistics.

Miss Lianne Aherne
Head of Sixth Form