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A woman's place is in the boardroom

News | Published in TESS on 19 July, 2013 | By: Kevin Stannard

Schools must subvert gender stereotypes and encourage 'disruption' to ensure girls' academic achievements translate into career success

Recent debate about the relative lack of women in top management positions in the world of work has thrown down the gauntlet to educators. In the UK, the Women's Business Council recently observed that the issue lies not in the boardroom but in the "talent pipeline", arguing that a key task is to broaden girls' skills, aspirations and job choices before the start of their working lives.

So what is going wrong at school? On the surface, nothing. Across the world women are outperforming men at school and at university, and yet this superiority is not translating into sustained success in the world of work. From politics to the police service, men outstrip women in terms of salaries and representation at the top of management.

What if, rather than being an apparent contradiction, one in fact explains the other? What if the very strategies that bring women success at school also stand in the way of career progression? In the words of US businesswomen Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr in the Harvard Business Review: "The very skills that propel women to the top of the class in school are earning us middle-of-the-pack marks in the workplace."

In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, politics editor Garance Franke-Ruta argues that "the behaviours that school rewards - studying, careful preparation, patient climbing from one level to the next - seem to give women an advantage academically, judging by the fact that they get higher grades than men.

"Yet ... out in the work world, people hire and promote based on personality as much as on formal qualifications, and very often networking can trump grinding away."

Are we doing girls a long-term disservice by defining their performance in terms of their compliance to the expectations of behaviour and work that reflect, reinforce and reproduce differences between the genders?

Inspection reports on girls' schools betray gendered judgements when they commend girls' manners and politeness, and even the neatness of their work, in terms that would seem odd if applied to boys. One report commended a girls' school in which "written work is completed to a high standard, well developed and also very neat". As testing in schools becomes ever more standardised, modularised and tick-box in form, we run the risk of inadvertently encouraging girls in their typically more measured, stepwise approach to tasks. When we give higher marks to essays that show balance and equal weighting to opposing arguments, and praise those who shine in set-piece performances, recitations and productions, we could be setting them up to fail when they come up against more competitive, combative situations such as interviews for selective universities. Some years ago, a study of history at the University of Cambridge pointed to the way in which the selection process favoured boys, by preferring broad generalisation and advocacy to balanced and careful judgement.

Fulfilling expectations

Expectations of girls seem to be different from those of boys, in ways that increase the gulf between school and work. As Johnson and Mohr point out, work isn't school. They propose that "disruption is a proven path to success" and suggest that girls adapt their school behaviour: figuring out how to challenge and influence authority; preparing well but also learning to improvise; finding effective forms of self-promotion; welcoming a less prescribed career path; and going for being respected not just liked.

"Disruptiveness" isn't, of course, a particularly valued attribute in schools, but it is not so very far from those of resourcefulness, resilience, enterprise, adventurousness, risk-taking, determination, standing up for yourself, leadership and connectivity that good schools do indeed seek to encourage and develop in girls. Embedding these in a school entails the recognition that it is not just what is taught at school, but also how it is taught, that is of long-term importance.

There is plenty of evidence that, in mixed settings, many girls behave differently and make different choices than they would in the absence of boys. For example, research shows that girls are more likely to join, but less likely to lead, extra-curricular activities in co-educational schools. In terms of subject choice, studies have shown that women who went to girls' schools are more likely to study stereotypically male subjects, such as maths, physics and chemistry, at school and university.

But there is a common misconception that teaching girls separately is intended to protect them, to provide an educational bubble wrap. In fact, girls' schools, and girls-only settings, are well-positioned to subvert, rather than support and reproduce, gender stereotypes and gender stereotypical behaviour. They have taken up the task of imagining, and realising, the power of learning environments that challenge and equip girls to assert themselves and aspire.

Last term, for example, one school held a "Blow Your Own Trumpet Week", challenging the assumption that it is bad for girls to shout about their successes.

Of course, encouragement of "misbehaviour" should only go so far: we wouldn't want to motivate students to not value academic success. But disruptiveness - as in the willingness to question, suggest alternatives, challenge, take risks, adapt and lead - can be very empowering.

Dr Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at UK private school network the Girls' Day School Trust.

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Comment (2)

  • I was interviewed on LBC radio yesterday (Friday) talking about this article. They contacted me as I'm a former girls' school head and I was President of the Girls' Schools Association in 2009.

    I said I thought 'disruptive' had unfortunately negative connotations, but that I absolutely agreed with Kevin Stannard's view that we should encourage girls to be bold and assertive. I think we need to be careful that we don't over-praise girls for being compliant, while at the same time accepting (and even welcoming) boys' boisterousness. I suggested we need to examine our preconceptions and be aware of the fact that, for example, we may see 'an ambitious man' as a positive thing and 'an ambitious woman' quite differently.

    I talked about Sheryl Sandberg's book 'Lean In' and her suggestion that if women aren't being as successful in a professional context as we might expect them to be (given their success in an educational context) we need to ensure the barriers aren't in women's heads. I know this is potentially controversial and sensitive stuff, but it's well worth debating, I think.

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    20 July, 2013


  • "Disruption" is very much an in-word in the business world. Coined by Clay Christensen it refers for example to where new technology, process or device changes entirely and for ever how we all do things. Like the mobile phone, electric wheelchair.
    It’s about things that challenge the status quo not about being “naughty”!

    An only child and the product of a girls' school myself, I was often ostracised by other girls and, in later life, by women for being confident, assertive and prepared to put my head above the parapet.

    As Founder & CEO of the organisation Women in the City I have just published the handbook Project Diamond: bringing brilliance to business which explains the science behind gender differences, how these play out in the workplace and the Tips and Tools to help womem mitigate the "advantage" male behaviours and values have in the work place.

    Many women will say they "lack confidence" but when questioned more deeply are more likely to say "lack courage". This is quite different and I agree with Jill that we somehow have to take the barriers out of girls'/women's heads.

    However, we can confuse girls by firstly praising them and encouraging them to self-promote only then to suggest that this behaviour is “showing off” and requesting that they stop. Eager to comply to social norms, girls retreat ... how do we stop this?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    24 July, 2013

    Gwen Rhys

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