Admirable ambitions to arouse aspirations
The scheme, funded by Sheffield Training and Enterprise Council, has established a register of women in a variety of careers who are willing to visit schools to talk to students - boys and girls - about their work experiences.
Christine Barton, who co-ordinates the project, said the criterion for choosing volunteers was that "they had the confidence to know what they wanted to do, then did it."
The register includes solicitors, an occupational psychologist, the owner of a beauty salon, a speech therapist, a university maths professor, a landscape manager, a print broker and an estate agent.
Financial adviser Dorothy Nustedt, a founder member and a volunteer, said the feedback had been "brilliant". Boys had benefited as well as girls from hearing about women's lives.
"A manager of an award-winning manufacturing company told them of her experience of being abused as a child and of her tough fight to reach the top. It was illuminating for them," Mrs Nustedt said.
A professor's experience of starting her career as a mature student "gave them different images to work on," she said.
Wendy Mustill, a policy researcher with South Yorkshire Police, said: "I am a great believer in marrying what you learn in school with the world of work. " She was able to tell students of her career changes, time off to look after children and the supportive role of her husband. They asked her about her domestic responsibilities.
"My children are still quite young," said Mrs Mustill. "I told them that I always wanted to go back to work and it is better for the children to have a happy mother than a frustrated intellectual stuck in the home."
Mrs Mustill found a more traditional outlook in working-class areas with both boys and girls seeing limited career horizons.
But a group of 11 and 12-year-olds in a middle-class area were horrified to be told by Sharon Stone, a manager with WH Smith, that her managerial colleagues called her "petal". "It's a very traditional environment - all the rest are men," she said.
Mrs Stone is enthusiastic about the scheme. "It's fantastic - a very simple idea. We are all experts on ourselves so we know how we got where we are. If I can just give just one girl or boy an idea how to achieve their dreams it will be worthwhile."
One of the secrets of the project's success is the training given to volunteers and teachers. Dr Barton, who used to teach personal and social education before retiring early because of a disability, plays a key role in co-ordinating school staff and volunteers.
She sends interested schools an information pack including the register which lists volunteers' occupations, a brief CV and a registration number. "I don't want women's names and addresses lying around."
She discusses what kind of professional will fit into a school's lessons and puts a volunteer in touch with a teacher.
"We are not recruiting or teaching, but sharing opportunities for the world of work," Dr Barton said. The volunteers are "all busy women, but they re-arrange their diaries".
The TEC pays administrative costs, but no one gets paid for their time and there is no charge for schools. Around 10 schools have so far taken part, reaching about 1,000 students in more than 100 visits. "It's growing fairly rapidly," Mrs Nustedt said. "It's not a priority for schools and it's better to spread the word by recommendation."
Mrs Mustill was aware of constraints on time as a 40-minute lesson was not long enough. "It's a shame. If we could have an evening session the students could bring their parents and it would be more relaxed," she said.
The scheme is being evaluated and a conference will be held on July 3 to disseminate its findings and establish a national network.
The next step is a mentoring project, which Dr Barton hopes will start in September with 75 students. Firms are being asked to sponsor it by nominating workers and giving them time to spend with young people. "I'm really excited by it," she said.
Details of "If I can ... you can", and the conference from Dr Christine Barton, 11 Stumperlow Croft, Sheffield, S10 3QW. Telephonefax 0114 2308464.