'Tell girls that they can choose not to have it all'

Schools can show girls that it is OK to value family life by letting women teachers take career breaks, says heads

Equality: Girls need to realise that they don't have to strive 'for it all' - they are entitled to a healthy work-life balance, say headteachers

Schools need to help girls to understand that there is no need to "do it all"  and that it is OK to take career breaks and value family time, headteachers have urged.

Female teachers and headteachers can spread the message to girls that they will not be "letting women down" by striving for a healthy work-life balance, according to girls' school leaders.

Benenden School headmistress Sam Price said: "You have got some women who feel they have to prove they can do it all.


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"But you have also got some women who feel that for them it would be good to have a career break – but yet sometimes they feel they cannot make that choice because in a way they are letting women down broadly."

Women taking career breaks

Speaking at a recent Girls' Schools Association event in Bristol, she said her school emphasises the message that decisions over how to achieve a work-life balance are for the girls and their future partners to make – and that it is a shared responsibility, not just the girls’ burden.

She told Tes: "That’s the message we give to parents, and the message we give to girls: that it’s your future to navigate and that actually has got to be a decision on how to manage your career and family with your partner."

Alice Phillips, headmistress of St Catherine’s School in Surrey, said schools have a role to play in ensuring that girls go into the workplace feeling confident to ask for career breaks.

She said: “Every woman should feel empowered – and she’s certainly legally entitled to – to say, 'You know what, I want to take a year out, two years out.'

“I have currently got two staff on extended maternity leave, two years. I am very happy to do that. I know they will come back super grateful and super enthusiastic. Why would I not do that?"

Liz Hewer, headmistress of St George’s School in Berkshire, said alumni could be “powerful" in spreading this message. She recounted that at her school, during a panel discussion at an alumni and careers workshop, questions regularly come up about work-life balance and family.

“The panellists often disagree with each other in a healthy way…and girls can see that there isn’t a right or wrong decision, it’s a personal choice,” she said.

Nina Gunson, headmistress of Sheffield High School for Girls, said the national debate was already shifting in the right direction.

“I think [our students] enter a society that is much better equipped to give them the support than perhaps our generation," she said. "A lot of them come from dual-working professional families so they see those sacrifices and balances, more than our generation, who saw more traditional roles."

Ms Price agreed that the debate was changing,  and said that greater mental health awareness meant that many young people now emphasised the importance of work-life balance and community work right at the start of their careers.

But she added: “More work needs to be potentially done with boys, especially teenage boys in particular, in terms of helping them to understand how they fit into this.”

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