In July 2013 there were only 19 female elected presidents and prime ministers in power around the globe. In the business world, women currently hold 19% of FTSE 100 director positions and the Government’s target is to reach approximately 24% by the end of next year.  

Schools are in the business of educating – but part of this is the necessity to prepare our young women for a realistic chance of success and equip them with the skills and confidence they need to realise their potential. 

In 2010 Lord Davies of Abersoch, a life peer in the House of Lords, was asked by the Government to investigate the barriers preventing women from reaching senior decision making roles in business. It’s a global issue but one that UK plc is set on changing.

He said: “Given that women make up over half of the UK population, account for nearly half of the working population, outperform males educationally and are responsible for the majority of household purchasing decisions, it just didn’t make sense that such low numbers were represented at board and senior management level.”

Sedbergh School has been co-educational since 2001 and in September 2013 opened its third girls’ boarding House.  As a School, we consider what has prompted change on a national level. The answer is accountability and visible support. The Government backed the campaign, the Business Secretary Vince Cable, has written on the issue, engaged with business and stakeholders and has spoken firmly about the need for action.

Companies have to declare their statistics and plans to increase numbers of women at board level. The Prime Minster has done likewise, as have other Ministers. And so our senior leaders also back it. September 2013 saw the opening of a third girls’ boarding house at Sedbergh School. Co-educational independent boarding schools are thriving – for a good reason: girls today know they need to be confident and familiar with working with and competing with their male colleagues.

Head of House, Yana Berahavaya, 17, moved from all-girls Casterton School to Sedbergh following the recent merger. She said: “Being in a co-educational school provides girls with the opportunity of real world competition, which means that they have to try harder or simply apply different kinds of skills.

Even though it might seem that when you are in a single- sex school you are more confident and can comfortably share your point of view with other girls, girls who achieve the same in co-educational schools become even more confident and grow in self-esteem. We learn how to be ourselves around the boys, how to interact – which is vital for our future work.”

How do we mirror what industry and Government do? Business encourages mentor relationships; so we start with role models through a guest speaker programme, including Diane Kenwood, Chair of the British Society of Magazine Editors and Captain Alison Dray, an ATO (Bomb Disposal) for the Royal Logistics Corps.  At the start of 2013, Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour launched the Woman’s Hour Power List 100 – the women who have the biggest impact on our economy, society, politics and culture.

Does power boil down to having the money to make things happen? Has technology changed what it is to be powerful? A series of videos addressing the question of How to Be a Powerful Woman are available on the Radio 4 website, including being: Ambitious, In Balance, Resilient, Connected, Yourself and Being a Leader. 

Beyond mentors, girls need opportunities to try out their leadership skills, to stick their head above the parapet, to support peers, contribute to team or ‘House’ spirit, unity and be able to rise to challenges. They need opportunities to be captains and leaders in all-girl settings and co-educational environments. Our current Head of School is female and she is supported by two deputies, one male, one female and a team of 17 other school prefects of both sexes. 

Beyond leading, there is a need for experience of committees – of leading them, of managing and playing an active role on sub-committees, and of getting used to running meetings professionally with agendas, minutes and action points. Reviews of previous events and issues being debated give a real sense of being in a position to empower change.

Do girls do need more encouragement to tease them out of their comfort zone and take risks? Yes, we find that that they will speak up more forcefully in the safety of their own single sex environment  – but the real world is co-ed and they need to practice and develop confidence in the safety of the school environment first.

We aren’t in the business of encouraging a tokenism culture where girls learn that they should get to the top because they are female and because there are quotas to fill but that they should be equipped to succeed regardless of their gender.

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