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Raising a girl boss

Think you're raising your daughter to be a strong leader? Muddy chats to Highfield Prep head Joanne Leach about what it really means to embrace girl power.

The Spice Girls launched the zig-a-zig-ah Girl Power movement, Beyoncé bangs the drum for female empowerment in Who Runs The World (Girls) and the #timesup swell is thumping the desk to banish inequality in the workplace – and yet women are still hitting the glass ceiling rather than smashing it. They’re also often described as ball breakers, unfeminine or oddballs. So what needs to be done to raise strong female leaders?

Highfield Prep Schol Maidenhead Berkshire Headmistress Joanna Leach formerly Englefield Primary Berkshire

Highfield Prep Headteacher Joanne Leach

Next Friday (8 Mar) is International Women’s Day, so what better time to chat to Headteacher Joanna Leach of Highfield Prep in Maidenhead (a school for girls, aged 3-11) on why we need to raise a generation of fearless females? The answer lies in risk taking, ditching social stereotypes and developing the confidence to break the mould.


Who runs the world? Girls! 

Beyonce video Who runs The World GIRLS car dancers on car and beyonce in military costume

Image: Beyonce/ Who Runs The World (Girls)

Women have been leaders throughout history. From the pharaohs of Egypt to the queens of England, women rulers are found in nearly every culture and time period. Yet, in almost all circumstances, male leaders greatly outnumber female leaders, even today. Society in general has made great gains in women’s participation in social, political, and employment spheres, women’s representation in positions of power and influence has not been quite so impressive, though there has been an increase in women who do manage to break through the glass ceiling and occupy top-level leadership positions.

I think it is critical that for us as leaders we need to understand gender stereotypes and the discourse around gender because if we don’t, our vision for more women in leadership will continue to limit the opportunities for women and help to continue the ideal of a glass ceiling. Being educated in a single sex environment allows the girls to grow and mature at their own pace; away from the pressure of feeling they need to conform to social stereotypes.


Risky business

Girl superhero cape mask and boxing gloves

One of the ways to increase the number of women leaders in the world is to start early – by encouraging girls to take chances. We do that here at Highfield, leadership opportunities come about partly from early foundational skills of being open to new experiences and learning how to manage our fears of taking such a risk.

We encourage our girls to take risks, which some find difficult. We want them to take risks and be resilient. For example, girls always want their work to be neat, tidy and correct but if it’s wrong, that’s great because it is how we learn from our mistakes which is the most important. That is resilience! It is important also to encourage the girls to take risks and further develop resilience outside of the classroom, climbing rocks, abseiling, etc.

Showing girls female role models who took risks, and succeeded because of that, is a great way to encourage them to step outside the box. Show them it’s ok to fail and that taking risks really is a win-win. If the risk pays off, you grow in confidence and have succeeded in what you were trying to do. If you fail, you become more resilient and able to deal with future challenges.


Break the mould

Creative optical illusion wall art at the entrance to the art block at Queen Anne's School Caversham

A lot of gender research shows that even young children, boys and girls, can be absorbed and influenced by gender stereotypes and this can start having an effect on the sorts of subjects and interests that girls and boys want to pursue. Educational resources and the school curriculum are an important aspect in in achieving gender equality and have widely been discussed in literature. One area of schooling and society in general is the use of stereotypical gender patterns in literature and online so it is vitally important for girls to have access to a balanced and varied curriculum where they can read and learn about positive female role models and one which gives them all sorts of opportunities. As educators, it is our responsibility to create a classroom environment which is conducive to learning for all pupils, irrespective of their gender.


Cultural clichés

THE Gruffalo next tree with mouse on the path

Image: Julia Donaldson/ Axel Scheffler

Stories particularly can disseminate gender stereotypes through the depiction of the male and female characters in books. In 2017, market research company Nielsen, in conjunction with The Observer, carried out an analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books. Their research revealed that while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books reviewed, the majority of the books were dominated by male characters, often with stereotypical masculine characteristics. Males were more typically “powerful, wild and potentially dangerous characters such as dragons, bears and tigers, while females tended to be personified as smaller and more vulnerable characters such as birds, cats and insects.”  The 2017 bestseller list includes perennial favourites The Gruffalo, Guess How Much I Love You and Dear Zoo, in which all the animals are referred to by a male pronoun, as if by default. This approach to gender is equally present in more recently published books, though none of which contain any female characters. The results of the research highlighted that, even in this day and age; casual sexism is evidently intrinsic in young children’s reading material.


Jobs for the boys?

Did you know that women are underrepresented in STEM occupations as they only make up 14% of all people working in STEM in the UK, despite being about half of the workforce? The researchers say these early ideas about gender and intelligence could steer young women away from high-profile careers associated with high intelligence, like neuroscience or engineering. So here at Highfield we have an annual STEM week which is a brilliant example of what we do here in helping to tackle the stereotypes that our girls are exposed to. They take part in exciting engineering challenges, 3D animation workshops and inspirational talks to just name a few.  The most important aspect of the week though is to highlighting to the girls that STEM subjects should not be associated with a specific gender and they can be really exciting to study and give them many different and varied employment opportunities.

Educationally and economically, girls generally are attaining higher and more levels of education than men yet they may hold themselves back from taking risks at work and limit their own potential as well as the potential of our workforce and not tap in to  all the available talent. Health-wise, mental, emotional, and physical health problems can develop from unrealistic personal expectations, fear of failure, and constant negative self-judgment. Girls can sometimes avoid taking risks for fear of being shamed, shunned, ridiculed.


Lead from the front

Painting of Ada Lovelace first computer programmer

Trailblazing Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer

I am so incredibly passionate about Women in Leadership and believe that we should encourage all our girls from a young age to take on leadership roles. At Highfield one way we promote this is through our large, inspirational mural in the top playground which celebrates great female leadership from Marie Curie to Ada Lovelace to Malala Yousafzai. It is important that we expose our girls to all kinds of female role models from different eras and different walks of life. Girls today should become their own role model and as it says on our mural, ‘Be what they want to be’ and follow their own path, nobody else’s!  So lets celebrate the female leaders of today and continue to work together to help all of our girls become the leaders for tomorrow. Spending time with empowered women, sharing real stories of what it takes to be successful is not only inspirational, it helps girls take risks and explore their ambitions with renewed confidence.

Highfield Prep School Maidenhead Berkshire Female role models mural playground

Highfield Prep’s wall of inspirational women

When I was at school (a long time ago!), things were very different and being the first girl to play in my primary school’s football and cricket team was a huge thing at the time. Not only for the boys but for the school as well – it was not a big thing to me at the time as why should I not have been picked? If I was good enough to get into the teams then I should and my gender should not be an issue. I was very lucky though at the time to have a very inspirational female sports teacher who encouraged me to do these things and that is something we want for all our girls.

Things may be more straightforward now and there are definitely more opportunities and more exposure for girls and women in all kinds of aspects but we do still have a way to go to be on parity with men, particularly when it comes to leadership.

Highfield Prep in Maidenhead has an Open Day on Wed 13 Mar, you can read my recent review here

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