“I don’t know how she does it” … or do I?

Media and lifestyle critics have been engaged in a frenzy of comment these past couple of weeks over the film ‘I don’t know how she does it’, based on the 2002 bestseller book of the same title by Allison Pearson. The film stars Sarah Jessica Parker as the heroine Kate Reddy, who balances (or doesn’t) life as an investment manager with life as a mother, and you cannot have failed to see the coverage: endless comment pieces about how true or not the film is, and countless reviews, most of which say it is an ‘all right’ sort of a film – lighthearted and without huge substance, but moderately entertaining. It is in the mould of most films, then – and there is nothing wrong with light entertainment, after all.

I haven’t of course seen it – not enough time while actually balancing work and family – but I can appreciate its content. Interestingly, however, although the main thrust of the comment pieces has been that ‘this has happened in my life too’, there is an ascerbic tinge both (according to reviewers) to the movie, and to the commentaries on it. The competition that can exist between women is highlighted – encouraged even – and it is debatable how helpful this is in our striving to move things forward more generally for women, including working mothers. The debate for women often centres around the question of whether it is possible ‘to have it all‘, and there is a certain malicious delight – not a pleasant emotion – which often seems to surface when it becomes clear that you can’t actually have everything in life.

But what a foolish assumption to make in the first place! Taken to its extremes, of course you can’t have everything in life – every consumer good, every experience, every state of being. To have children and not have children at the same time; to live simultaneously in New York, Delhi and the wilds of West Africa … how absurd even to contemplate it! We can add experiences to our lives, and this is one of the messages we should be communicating to our young people – make the most of your opportunities, and you will lead a richer life – but just think of all the information there is in the world: how ridiculous to expect we could know, or even encounter, a fraction of all of it! So much is unknowable, so much is impossible to do.

Seen with in this context of the truly impossible in life, it seems eminently possible to consider that we might be able to conduct the relatively simple actions of (a) having children and (b) working. Why on earth do we create such a fuss about it? It doesn’t mean that it is easy – but why would we expect it to be? Everything that is worth anything in life requires hard work, and therein lies the satisfaction of it. What matters is our attitude to it – a positive, optimistic, ‘can-do’ attitude, which acknowledges that there is no such thing as perfection, and that this is fine. We need to change the language around women’s lives – ‘choices’, not ‘compromises’, for example.

So … do enjoy the film. I expect that I will at some later stage in the future, but it doesn’t worry me not to be able to see it now. In the meantime, go and enjoy your family and your work. We do know how she does it, just as we know how we do it – with humour, determination, and an embrace of all that life has to offer. Go for it!

Kofi Annan, children’s radio, and the immense power of charitable action

On Saturday morning I had the tremendous privilege of hearing Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, in conversation with Edward Mortimer, Trustee of the Children’s Radio Foundation, at the University Church in Oxford, where I was taking part in the annual Alumni Weekend, which involved me in chairing a session of Q and A with the Vice-Chancellor in the Sheldonian. Hearing Kofi Annan speak, however, was a highlight of the weekend: it was the first time I had heard him in person, and I was struck forcibly by his dignity, presence and total commitment to making the world a better place. Since retiring from the UN in 2006, Mr Annan has devoted his time to continuing to press for better social policies for the poor and vulnerable, particularly in Africa, and he has also been an active mediator in areas of conflict – in Kenya, for example, in the terrible post-election violence in 2008. He is also a member of the Elders. He had agreed to speak in Oxford to highlight the fantastic work being done by the Children’s Radio Foundation, who empower young people by giving them a voice in the medium which is still the most effective means of communication throughout the great continent of Africa, and it was fascinating to hear of their work.

Perhaps it is because I am more attuned to them personally, having reached that stage in my life where I have a voice and the means and network to support them, but I have the glorious sensation at the moment of seeming to encounter charitable ventures at almost every turn. A week ago I was visited by an Old Girl of St Mary’s Calne who lives in Zambia, in the town of Livingstone, and who is organising a series of events and projects to mark David Livingstone’s bicentenary, raising money too for the Anglican Street Children’s Project. On Friday night I met a fellow alumnus of Oxford University who has recently set up a charity, Mardi, to connect recent graduates of a number of universities in order to share knowledge and experience to help charity organisations in the developing world. Throughout 2011 I have been supporting – through school and through the Girls’ Schools Association – two major charities: The Prince’s Trust (South West) – and in particular their Women Into Enterprise programme, giving business grants to disadvantaged young people – and Plan UK, the children’s charity, which does amazing work in 50 countries around the world to support young people, and which lobbies governments to make a change for the futures of the youth of the world. Their ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign has been – and continues to be – far-reaching, and seeks to address the issue that 75 million girls in the world are not in education. I will have the huge privilege of accompanying them in October this year on a field trip to one of their projects in Bangladesh, where they are working to reduce the instances of early and forced marriage, which prevent millions of girls each year from completing their education.

In all of this work done by the people I meet, I see the real power of action, and what can be achieved in this world if people put their mind to making a difference. We all have our own families to care for, our own circles of friends, our own jobs and organisations to tend … but in addition, if we are to be global citizens and contribute to the development of humanity, then we must all realise that our responsibility – and our capacity to influence – spreads out beyond our immediate relationships. It is incumbent upon all of us to reach out to others and to help make the world a better place.

I asked Kofi Annan a question on Saturday: what advice would he give the girls and young women in my school about what they could do to help? His response was that they should go beyond what they do at home and at school and stretch out to give to others. “If each of us does something, collectively we will make a difference.”

Great words from a great man. Let us heed them.

It is natural to feel conflicting emotions about your children going to university

With the new university term now fast approaching – and just started for some – it is natural for parents of first-time university students to feel very strange. Such a conflict of emotions – pride in your child for gaining a place and hope for the future, for new relationships and new horizons, balanced against fear of the unknown, of what they might encounter, and fear too of the aching gap that they will leave in your home. No matter how infuriating your teenager can be at times, she or he is still essentially your baby, whom you have nurtured and cared for, through thick and thin, for the past 18 or 19 years. Is it really time for them to leave?

These are entirely natural, human feelings. You have invested enormously in your child – not just financially (try not to think about how much this is, but an article in the Guardian last year set the figure at over £200k … excluding school fees), but, more pertinently, emotionally. Although as parents we understand rationally that our children are their own independent selves, emotionally we are bound to see them as extensions of our own selves. A part of us resides in them, and while we want the very, very best for them, and we know that this means that they must leave us and forge their own path in life, nonetheless a strong tie holds them to us, and part of us wishes that they would never leave.

So how can you prepare for their departure? Distract yourself by preparing with them – reading about the course, helping to sort out accommodation issues and practicalities such as bank accounts. Speak to other parents for advice on areas – I wrote a short article for the MyDaughter website, for example, a while ago, in response to a parent who was worried that her daughter might be lonely at university. Read Khalil Gibran’s poem ‘On Children’ again and cry, but know that you have done the most amazing job in bringing your child to adulthood.

And then sit back and wait for the end of term, and the inevitable load of washing which will come your way, and for which you will secretly be glad.

Women in teams: the way to combat the gender pay gap?

I missed this article, ‘Women compete better in teams’, which appeared in Sunday’s Observer, but luckily one of my senior staff passed it on to me. It gave details of research published in the Economics Journal about an experiment conducted by researchers about team exercises, and the results were fascinating, with implications for understanding and creating opportunities for women to compete equally with men in gaining top appointments.

In the experiment, participants – men and women – had to answer maths problems as quickly as possible, and had to decide – in teams – whether they wanted to be paid according to the number of problems their two-person team answered correctly or whether they wanted to enter a competition against three other teams. Individual participants decided whether they wanted to compete against three other individuals.

The male and female participants performed equally well, answering the same proportion of questions correctly; what was extremely interesting, however, was that a significant difference emerged in how the genders chose to participate. No fewer than 81% of men chose to compete as individuals compared with 28% of women; when, however, participants competed in teams, the gender competition gap dropped by 31 percentage points to 22%, with 67% of men choosing to enter the competition compared with 45% of women.

These statistics are of relevance because achievement – in the workplace, as elsewhere – is closely related to a desire to compete. Put bluntly, you have to be ‘in it to win it’. One of the main areas of concern for Boards seeking to appoint women is that the pipeline of women coming through from middle management positions dries up, and this has been linked to a lack of desire on the part of women to compete. If this desire to compete grows when women are placed in teams, then it is entirely feasible that with changes to the environment in which women work, learn and prepare for their futures, many more women may be prepared to put themselves forward for the top jobs.

The success of any initiative based on this research – and there is still much creative thinking to be done in this respect in order to work out how this might translate into practice in interviews -will of course still depend on the environment at the top evolving to make it attractive for women – but this research opens a door. It is good to see that there is active work going on to make it possible for us to break down the remnants of gender inequality which still bedevil our workplaces.

The valuing of fatherhood

Fathers who would like an uplifting read should take a look at Dylan Jones’ comment piece on The Times website. Entitled ‘Men who juggle: School runs, nappies, long hours at work’, the article is in effect a piece in praise of fatherhood, recognising the value that fathers have in their children’s lives, and celebrating the fact that their involvement in their lives is increasingly regarded as normal.

Dylan Jones, of course, is the editor of GQ, the stereotyped ‘lads’ mag’ image of which is as far removed from sensible fatherhood as one can imagine. And he is the first to admit that he has not always thought the way he does now: ‘When I started at GQ a decade ago I banned all mention of children in the magazine; photographs too. If our readers have children, I told the staff, they don’t want to be reminded of them when they read our magazine. They want to escape domesticity and imagine for a while that the likes of Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow are still attainable, that the world of private jets, nightclubs and chilled Cristal is only a cab ride away.’

Now, however, he has seen how outmoded and restrictive such an attitude is, and he is not afraid to stand up and be counted. In this day and age, when mothers and fathers are much more likely to want to share jointly in the care of their children, and when it has at last become acceptable for fathers to express the deep love they have for their offspring, this article reminds us that we have made enormous social progress, and yet must still speak out in order to get to the end of the final straight: ‘Men no longer want to miss out on the early years. We no longer want to miss out on any years. It is time that we stopped sniggering about the so-called feminisation of men, time we embraced the idea of men who want to juggle their careers to care for their children, time we celebrated stay-at-home dads.’

In the same week that a study showed that boys who grow up without fathers are far more likely to fall – in what might be interpreted as a sad search for love and fulfilment – into early fatherhood themselves, it is also a reminder that fathers are incredibly important. Fathers … feel valued this week.

Boardroom quotas and social change

A very interesting comment piece appeared in The Telegraph on Wednesday of this week, and I thoroughly recommend that you read it. Entitled ‘Quotas won’t resolve the battle of the sexes’, it was written jointly by Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, Conservative MPs for, respectively, Esher and Walton, and Witham, and it challenged the recommendations of Lord Davies’ Report on Women on Boards, published last February. In particular, the authors of the piece questioned the wisdom of mandatory quotas of women on UK boards, arguing that they are a ‘short-term sticking plaster; not a long-term solution’.

Of course, Lord Davies himself did not advocate fixed, mandatory quotas; what he did say, however, was that boards should set themselves the target of 25% of women in the boardroom by 2015, and this month of September marks the date by which he expected boards to comply in this respect. A target without a process is mere window-dressing, though, and the Telegraph comment piece is quite right to deplore the setting of quotas which result in women being on the board just because they are women, and not because they are the best candidate. To be fair to Lord Davies, however, this is clear in his recommendations; and boards have had six months in which to work out how they are going to bring more women on to their boards in a way which is meaningful and both recognises and rewards female talent, ensuring that it is nurtured and developed in the pipeline leading up to board level. A more diverse board, after all, has been proven to be a more competitive one.

Where the problem will lie is if boards either fail to set targets, or set the kind of superficial target which fails to work out how to attract, develop and retain outstanding women directors. Neither of these should happen if boards set their minds to the task at hand – how can they create an environment which allows women to grow and thrive in their business context? Part of the answer lies in the suggestions listed by Raab and Patel – more family-friendly policies, for instance, which will retain women at a time of their lives where they seek flexibility. Equally important, though, is the changing of attitudes towards women, recognising the weight of social history and compensating for it – questioning the ‘old boys’ club’ mentality of some firms, and developing mentoring and support structures for women who have never had access to these in the past.

Quotas shouldn’t be necessary, and with luck, hope and a fair wind they will disappear entirely as a concept, as we witness a real and practical determination on the part of boards to prepare for stronger governance reflecting the gender diversity of their clients and of society. Until this happens, however, the threat of quotas is a sharp reality check, the power and usefulness of which should not be underestimated.

Are we placing too much pressure on parents?

By a curious coincidence – or perhaps it was a deliberate act – page 10 of yesterday’s Telegraph drew attention to a central truth of our society that was not explicitly referred to in either of the two articles which appeared solely on that page. The first article, ‘Peer pressure makes mothers push children to milestones’, reported on a study of around 2,000 mothers with children under the age of seven, which showed that over half of mothers felt under some pressure – sometimes from family, sometimes from friends, sometimes from complete strangers – to ensure that their child was ahead of the field in whichever developmental stage he or she was currently going through, be it potty training, walking, talking or the like. Working mothers ‘felt they were judged more because they had jobs, particularly by mothers who did not work’.

The second article, immediately underneath the first, was entitled rather starkly ‘Women’s depression rates have doubled’, and reported on a separate study of 30 European countries which showed that women under 40 were now twice as likely as before to suffer from depression, with this likelihood increasing to three to four times for women between the ages of 25 to 40. This, the report explained, was because of the ‘tremendous burden’ of trying to juggle home and family life.

The connection between the two articles was clear for all to see: women – mothers – come under huge pressures in our society to be perfect, and it is no surprise that sometimes cracks will show and their mental wellbeing and health will become strained as a result. In our world, an underlying drive towards ‘perfect’ parenting is reinforced to mothers incessantly in images of perfection in adverts, television shows and government pronouncements; it stands to reason that with such an overwhelming force, coming from every angle, that this can be incredibly harmful to mothers – and fathers. This is all the more the case because it is all about their children – and which parent does not want to do the best for their children?

Even well meaning statements from well-intentioned sources – to whit, Nick Clegg’s call to parents to support teachers and schools (also in The Telegraph yesterday, on the front page) – can cause angst. While obviously aimed at parents who aren’t fulfilling the basic needs of their children, the implied admonition hits hard any parent who is already semi-persuaded by the underlying message they receive constantly about how they must improve – and how they are not good enough.

The truth is that parenting is an incredibly hard process, which receives little support at times from our wider society, and if we are not careful, we risk isolating parents yet further. Who will want to ask for help when implicitly this will be seen as a failure? (Especially with the nanny state and the secretive Children’s Court lurking in the background.) Who will dare to question the prevalent perception of parenting as a natural, intuitive process, when the reality – ie that parents do not always instinctively know what is the very best for their children, or at the very least have to work hard to gain access to our accumulated wisdom on parenting – is frowned upon?

Parenting is such a vital, essential component of our society that we must – absolutely must – find ways genuinely to value parents and to support them. We must counteract the pressures that parents, especially mothers, face, and we must remind everyone that it is entirely acceptable to share and seek advice when things don’t appear to go quite to plan. Each child is a unique being – a different entity with his or her own path through life. Why would there be a specific manual or blueprint for each one?

Parents are amazing – if they are strongly motivated by love and care for their children, and they are open to the advice, guidance, wisdom and reality checks of other experienced parents, then they can afford to relax and give themselves a break. Their children will be just fine.

A new school term … a new hope and excitement

As I write this post, there is a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the air at school. On Wednesday, all the girls return after the summer break, and we will be greeting a fantastic cohort of new girls, as well as welcoming back girls who are continuing on their journey of education and growth at St Mary’s Calne.

A new year always brings into focus the purpose of education and the central reason for our existence as a school: to ensure that each and every girl becomes the very best person she is meant to be, in every respect, and that by so doing she is enabled to help make the world a better place. The freshness of the start of the academic year gives a renewed impetus to these goals, reminding us of the incredible importance of the task that we have in school to inspire and develop in the girls strong aspirations for their futures.

The main purpose of this blog is not to reflect on school life – the school website, weekly E-Lily newsletters and regular communications from a myriad of people at school (including me) do this admirably, and there is no need to replicate these here. Rather, these posts are intended to reflect on issues connected with the education of girls but at times tangential to them – issues of gender, of the pressures our young people face, of parenting, of careers and further study. However, the start of term is such a milestone in each year, a time imbued with so many powerful emotions, a time of real beginning and renewal, that I cannot let it pass without comment.

Wednesday marks the start of something incredibly special, whether it is the very start of a girl’s time at St Mary’s Calne or the continuation of her years in this outstanding place. A full, satisfying, stretching term and year awaits; so many opportunities, and so much potential to be explored and developed. This generation is our future and the hope for the world.

It is my privilege to lead them at such a great school.

How to ensure we don’t wait 70 years for equality

Two weeks ago I wrote about the recent report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, ‘Sex and Power‘, which had calculated the rather gloomy statistic that in some areas of public life, we will most probably need to wait 70 years until there is equality of gender representation at the highest levels. Can we really afford to wait these 70 years? Almost three generations? Even if we could, should we?

In order to effect any change at all, we will need to work from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Legislation is all very well, but it is the changing of hearts, minds and expectations that will make the difference in the end. So, where do we start?

Well, we can start with our current generation of girls. A girl who embarks upon her secondary schooling at the age of 11 in September 2011 will graduate from school in July 2018, and from university in 2021 at the earliest. We have 10 years in which to change her world for the better; what, then, can we do?

First, we can teach her to value herself, to understand her strengths, and not to underestimate her potential and her abilities. We can teach her to take risks, to be resilient, to be courageous and to listen to her inner moral compass. We can teach her to reject pressures to conform to trivialised, sexualised imagery which holds back common perceptions of women.

Secondly, we can give her the tools to negotiate the hurdles and embedded stereotypes she may encounter. The more aware she is of the world around her, of the history of women in the workplace, and of the conflicts that have arisen over the ages, the more sensitive she will be to the task that is still ahead of women in the workplace, and the more she will be able to take the bumpy path in her stride.

A simple prescription, but an effective one. When young women are grounded in a strong sense of who they are, able to put into context the pressures they encounter around them, they are best placed to be able to forge their own path in life. If they are free to be genuinely true to themselves, their world will quite simply be better, for them and for all those around them.

Barack Obama famously said: ‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.’

Girls’ schools are already doing this. If we all did it, think what we could achieve. Can we really wait 70 years?

A new school beckons: helping your 11 year old child make the transition to senior school

September every year brings the first glimpses of autumn and the end of the year, with a hint of coolness in the air, and days becoming visibly shorter. As the calendar year starts to draw to a close, however, the academic year begins in earnest, and for those children entering Year 7 in the next few days, it marks a significant shift in their lives. Most secondary schools are larger, busier, fuller places than primary schools. Bells can ring and corridors can fill with people rushing from one place to another. It can be hard to know everyone, or to feel known. Year 7 pupils are young people on the cusp of teenagehood, when the world begins to seem different; and a move to a new place, a new set of relationships, and a new set of dynamics, will most probably accelerate this change. How, then, do you as a parent support your child?

First, remember that your child is still a child. Although a secondary school will expect your child to take charge of him or herself, your child still needs parental back-up on the organisational front, to make sure that everything runs smoothly. In advance, try to get a grip yourself on the practicalities of day-to-day life in school, from uniform to timetable, so that you can remind your child, reassure and check that all is going to plan.

Second, remember that you are still your child’s parent. Your responsibility for your child will continue until at least the age of 18, and almost certainly for much longer than that. Despite what your child may tell you at times, you are still entitled – in fact, morally and legally required – to check the progress that he or she is making, and to intervene if things go off track. With this in mind, build a solid relationship with your child’s school; learn from the outset to whom you should go if there is an issue, or if you want to find out more, and don’t be afraid to do so. Good schools will welcome this with open arms and will want to communicate well with you; after all, we are all in this together with one single aim: to help your child grow up to be the very best he or she can become.

Third, remember that the notion of growing up as a linear process is – quite simply – a myth. Your child will soon hit puberty, and plunge into a cycle which reflects many of the needy traits you will recall from early childhood – age 2-4 – but with the distinct difference that he or she now possesses far better developed communication and cognitive skills. He or she will need the same levels of attention, but from other sources, other adult mentors as well as you, as he or she starts to evolve the skills necessary to function in society, and to carve out a personal niche. Be attuned to this and encourage other mentor relationships.

The start of Year 7 is an exciting time; a waving goodbye to childhood, and a welcoming in of a period of transition that will culminate in the adulthood that your child deserves and to which he or she must aspire. Embrace it all, on behalf of your child.