On gender and leadership

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Last week I attended the ‘Gender Equality Symposium on Leadership and Opportunity for Young Women’, hosted by the University of Exeter and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. Alongside sharing initial findings from the hosts’ joint research project, the event proposed to act as a platform for knowledge exchange and to facilitate new partnership opportunities.

The day offered a broad array of perspectives from a range of different organisations working to support young women, who shared their experiences of empowering girls and their views on the challenges we face in tackling gender inequality. It provided a great deal of food for thought for my own journey with the Teach First Innovation Series.

I’m so grateful the event organisers made it free to attend, so that I could learn from all of the incredible speakers at no cost. So, in the spirit of sharing, I thought I would pull together my key reflections from the day.

1. Education needs to come with action

One of the organisations showcased, Fearless Futures, highlighted that educating young women on inequality is only a small part of the equation. We need to ensure that we consider the challenges young women face in depth to understand not only those individual issues but also the root causes as it’s those we need to tackle if we want to achieve sustainable and significant change. For example, working with young women on body image and self esteem can only go so far if media portrayals and commentaries about women and beauty remain the same.

All too often we work with a deficit model, putting responsibility on girls’ shoulders to “be more”, but the onus shouldn’t be on girls to “improve” themselves. It’s not that girls are lacking in ability or qualities – it’s that they are reduced by society to be seen and treated as lesser than. As such, interventions with young people must focus on recognising, amplifying and nurturing their existing strengths, rather than equipping with something they’re “missing”.

However, education on its own is a sticking plaster – not a solution. Which leads me to my second point…

2. Empower girls to be the solution

We need to do more to enable girls to become changemakers in this space – I firmly believe we should take on the role of facilitators for their leadership rather than leading change on young women’s behalf. If we shut young people out, we are reducing them as well. They are experts by experience and are the best equipped to advocate for the differences they need and want to see. If we can equip them to challenge the status quo, developing a new generation of compassionate, critical thinkers and activists, we are much more likely to see a shift. Not to mention the positive impact of social action on young people’s confidence and wellbeing.

If you won’t take my word for it, this was one of the key suggestions made by young women in the University of Exeter and WAGGGS research. I told you girls know best.

3. We need to consider the journey of leadership development for young women

During the event it became clear that there seems to be a gap in early intervention. Many interventions appear to begin during teenage years, when many gender stereotypes have already been internalised. For example, the majority of girls surveyed by the University of Exeter believed they would need to work harder than boys to achieve the same things. What would the difference be if these issues were tackled from an earlier age?

The research conducted by the University of Exeter also highlighted that girls are least confident in their leadership abilities during transition points, such as moving between school and university or from education into work. Now it may be my #iwill campaign hat slipping back on, where developing a journey of social action from a young age is a key aim in order to establish a habit of participation, but it struck me that a journey of leadership and empowerment for girls could make a world of difference. Particularly considering the research discussed in my previous blog, that showed young women’s experiences of the world and self confidence get steadily worse as they grow up.

4. There is no one-size-fits-all approach

“There is no such thing as a single – issue struggle because we do not lead single – issue lives.” – Audre Lorde

Although the day’s discussions grouped girls together into a general whole, we were reminded that we must keep intersectionality in mind. It’s vital to recognise that a range of other aspects of girls’ lives will affect their experiences of the world and the support they need as a result. So, how can we make sure that programmes and initiatives are accessible and inclusive so that no one is left behind?

It isn’t a question I have the answer to, but this point really resonated with me, not only because I have worked with young people from a broad range of backgrounds over the last twelve years, but also because I know factors such as disability strongly influenced my perspective of who I was able to be as a young woman. During my teenage years, many of the interventions I heard about at the event would have been inaccessible to me and wouldn’t have chimed with who or where I was in my life.

Along with the above, it’s an integral thought that I will be taking with me into the Innovation Series, which I’m looking forward to beginning officially today. 

(Edit: since this blog was first posted, I have chosen to withdraw from the Innovation Series, but am continuing to consider what I can do to make a difference.)

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