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Opinion28th June 2019

How schools can encourage girls to be leaders – from day one

Laura Yandell is Deputy Head of Teaching, Learning and Curriculum at Ark Greenwich Free School. She recently completed a Masters in Education at Goldsmiths, specialising in issues around gender and leadership. In this blog post, she discusses the barriers girls face on their path to leadership roles and how schools can help overcome them. There’s a lot of data showing that girls outperform boys in school – and yet those achievements don’t translate into leadership positions for girls in the workplace. I took up my research project to find out more about why that happens and how we can change this. It has been reported that at the current rate of change, it will take around 70 years to achieve gender balance in the boardrooms of the largest 100 companies in the UK, which is incredibly sad. On a personal level, I’ve felt, as a female educator, it has been harder moving into leadership than it has been for my male counterparts. I believe that at a grassroots level, schools can and should make changes to ensure our female students leave our schools with as much courage, confidence and will as our male students do, to take on any leadership position they may strive for in the future. The title for my research paper was: “Do schools prepare girls for leadership positions?” My work revealed some of the specific barriers that girls face at school:

Girls feel limited because of gender stereotypes

I interviewed a number of female students and discovered that it is less common for them to see female role models in leadership positions, especially at headteacher level. This leads to them feeling as if it is a challenge – rather than a natural progression – for them to become leaders. Interestingly enough, a few girls I interviewed felt some men actively don’t want gender equality because it would threaten their status in society. It is important that both males and females need to actively support women moving into leadership if we are to gain equality.

Confidence is a key issue for girls

This came up over and over again in my research. All of the girls I spoke to in year 7 and year 9 felt that they lacked confidence at times and that this might have an impact on their future careers. They felt that boys at their schools ‘knocked them down’ and this led to self-doubt.

Role models are important

One girl told me that she was ‘shocked’ when a female headteacher took over at her primary school. She said she had expected a man in that role. The girls I spoke with felt that they didn’t see enough females in positions of authority and this discouraged them from thinking about taking up these roles when they grow up.

Curriculum matters

The girls all felt that, when they learned about a female role model in school, such as Marie Curie, it was rare and presented as an unusual thing. That such stories were presented as if it was special, rather than normal, for a woman to achieve. The women they did learn about were rebellious in nature and achieved because they chose not to conform to society’s expectations. This is very different from the kinds of lessons a school often works very hard to teach its students about playing by and within the rules.

Relationships and behaviours can be very different depending on gender

Girls feel that boys cause more low-level disruptions in the classroom and that it’s difficult for girls to stand up for themselves in school, because they felt that doing so would often makes conflicts worse. So they often have to internalise it when they are upset. The girls I spoke with felt it was important for teachers, particularly female teachers, to challenge disrespectful behaviour by boys. When girls have seen this in action, they said that it boosted their confidence to stand up for themselves. Overall, my research showed me that changing the culture of a school has to come from the top. Recruiting more female leaders, especially headteachers, will of course make a difference. But schools need to look at all of the issues that the girls I spoke to raised. At Ark Greenwich, I make a point of celebrating International Women’s Day every year; we do an assembly about it, as well as optional lunchtime workshops throughout the week. We also do optional training sessions with our female staff members, discussing the challenges and barriers they face when considering a leadership position. I try to be a good role model myself. I say to girls at my school that they can do whatever they want to do with their lives; the future is for everybody – regardless of gender! If they work hard and believe in themselves, they can reach their full potential. They don’t have to listen to that inner critical voice that they sometimes hear, as it puts limits on them and their aspirations. I like to point out to them that Ark’s CEO is a woman. There’s still a lot of work to be done to challenge our notions of leadership and gender but I do think times are changing. Our role as educators is to encourage the girls in our schools to step up and to foster in them the confidence that they will need to lead that change. They are the only ones who can make sure we don’t have to wait 70 years for leadership equality. Want to see more like this? Sign up to Teach – our monthly newsletter featuring practical tips, insights and ideas from Ark, our partners and our friends – visit