On International Women’s Day 2021, Headteacher Jo Sharrock writes in Independent Education Today how the regressive effect of the pandemic on gender equality has thrown the importance of girls’ education into sharp relief.
Girls-only education matters. For shocking evidence, look no further than the Government’s ‘Stay Home Stay Safe’ advert earlier this year. Women were depicted home schooling children and doing domestic chores, while the only man featured was shown relaxing on a sofa. The Government withdrew the advert after an outcry over its sexism, but the sad truth is that it did accurately reflect the experience of many women during lockdown.
The pandemic has set gender equality back by years – the UN has put it at 25 – and numerous studies have confirmed that women are bearing the brunt of domestic chores, childcare and wage or job losses.
The world was not designed by women, nor – if the pandemic effects are anything to go by – was it designed for women. Girls’ schools were created to put girls first. Always. A girl’s years at a girls’ school may be the only time in her life that she will be in an environment that is designed solely with her in mind, with people that put her at the centre of all they do.
Experience of such an environment, at the most formative time in a girl’s life, will equip her with what she needs to thrive for the rest of her life. It will give her qualifications and more importantly the skills, tool kit and character so that she can be her own agent of change, from those first years at university to her first job and her first leadership position and as she makes decisions about family life and beyond. In light of the regressive effect of the pandemic on gender equality, the importance of girls-only schools existing as a valid choice for parents is thrown into sharp relief.
A girl’s years at a girls’ school may be the only time in her life that she will be in an environment that is designed solely with her in mind, with people that put her at the centre of all they do
Girls’ education matters because it ensures that girls get the bespoke attention that they need to flourish. In a girls-only environment there is less reason to adapt behaviour for others, or to adopt moderating roles in discussion allowing louder voices to take the lead in class or in co-curricular activities. We do not want our girls to learn how to play nice, defer or stay quiet because they are worried that they may look too stupid or too smart or because the teacher knows they can be left to ‘get on with it’.
Girls lose self-confidence more easily, and regain it less quickly, than boys and so we need to encourage them to experiment, be brave and be prepared to make mistakes. A girls-only education liberates them to do just that. There are no girl subjects or boy subjects, no girl activities or boy activities, no girl traits or boy traits – there are simply subjects, activities and traits in abundance where girls can make unconstrained choices about their interests, subjects and future careers. It is no surprise that the proportion of GDST students taking STEM subjects is significantly higher than the figures for girls nationally.
Girls enjoy sport and exercise; they are much more likely to stick with it in a girls-only environment. They simply don’t care as much about getting sweaty and red in the face nor do they hide their fierce competitiveness as if it were somehow unfeminine to want to win.
They do not suffer from a fear of performance – they sing, dance, act, debate, present. They learn how to laugh at themselves, how to fail, the joy of success, the camaraderie of competition and of course they will hold all the leadership positions within their school. Free from stereotyping and with all opportunities available to them our girls don’t play second fiddle to anyone. They are free to play all the roles within school life and they do better academically and socially as a result.
It is well documented that women are far more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, to talk themselves out of going for promotions because they are not 100% ready, let alone negotiate for that pay rise, and yet women who went to all-girls schools are more successful in the job market and earn more in later life because they are more likely to work in male-dominated and better-paid industries. Why? Because girls learn and develop more successfully unfettered by gender expectation.
With an explicit focus on building their confidence and empowering their voice we can challenge that inner critic, the little voice of doubt that plagues many a girl and woman. We can bridge that confidence gap by focusing on practicalities like networking, negotiation alongside building character and challenging the pressure of likeability. When our girls leave school, they expect not just a seat at the table but to be involved in designing the table. This expectation sets them apart.
The schools of the GDST were born of rebellion and resolve because our founding mothers knew that if girls were given an education dedicated to their needs that it would be for the betterment of all society. The pandemic has exposed and deepened the inequalities that exist in our society with women bearing the brunt of redundancies, furloughing, economic hardship, work stress, home schooling and domestic chores.
We still need that spirit of rebellion and resolve to deliver an education entirely dedicated to the needs of girls. Such an education is surely more relevant, and indeed more necessary than ever as we endeavour to futureproof a whole generation of young people against the insidious effect of gender inequality so that both girls and boys grow up free from any sense that the script has been written for them.
Girls’ schools are not ivory towers behind which to hide our daughters and protect them from the real world. The girls’ schools of the 21st century are engines of change, where a girl learns without any limits placed upon her and where her confidence and resilience can flourish so that she knows not just how to navigate the real world but how to thrive in it and how to contribute to making a better future for all of us.