'Get rid of your careers teachers, they're rubbish,' entrepreneur urges sixth-formers' conference. Sophie Kirkham reports.
When the organisers of a sixth- form conference to discuss the female leaders of tomorrow invited one of Britain's most successful women entrepreneurs to speak, they were not expecting tales of truancy and a call for all careers teachers to be sacked.
Emma Harrison, who features in Channel 4's Make Me a Million documentary, now runs A4e, a company turning over pound;100 million a year, a far cry from her first venture, a tuck shop run out of her primary school locker.
She was speaking at a one-day conference in London this week in which sixth-form girls from six of the capital's schools heard speeches from a panel of women, including Tessa Jowell, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary.
While Ms Jowell launched the conference with a call for more women-only shortlists for MPs, Ms Harrison told girls to ignore obstacles in their careers and "walk around" supposed glass ceilings.
"Leading in a man's world?" she said. "If that is what you think you are doing, then give up. Glass ceilings are nonsense, it is up to you. There is no difference nowadays."
Ms Harrison, who turned over pound;1m in the first year running her father's training company just after she graduated, told how she had played truant in school because geography lessons were "so boring" and instead spent her time making canoes and planning small business ventures.
"Any of you who really want to do it can start now," she told the students.
"If any of you are relying on (a careers teacher) to plan your future, give up now," she said. "When I told my careers teacher I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, she said 'No, no, no, dear, no one will want to marry you.'
"Sack them all - get rid of your careers teachers... they're rubbish."
Other speakers included Diane Abbott MP, and Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil rights group, Liberty, and television presenter Clive Anderson acted as chairman.
Miss Abbott, Britain's first black female MP, told the conference: "We have known for a long time that girls are, generally speaking, more competent and more sensible than boys, and in recent years they are excelling in examinations, yet still so few are in leadership.
"And it is scary to go for leadership because of what people will say - that you are aggressive, pushy, strident... they will talk about your sexual preferences.
"Don't let pictures (of girls with dolls) make you think you are deemed to do some caring job earning less than men and with a lot less chances than men... leave this conference prepared to lead."
Ms Jowell also complained about the media's treatment of women in top positions.
"If you alter your position, you have performed a 'screeching U-turn' or a 'humiliating climbdown'," she said.
The minister added that when she entered the House of Commons in 1997, there were more MPs called John than there were women MPs. The House is still 80 per cent male.
The conference, entitled "New Directions, a conference for the female leaders of tomorrow", was organised by the pound;10,528-a-year City of London school for girls.
It included pupils from Channing school, another private girls' school and four state schools: the Central Foundation, Mulberry, the Skinners' company's school for girls and Highbury Fields.
Headteacher of City of London, Dr Yvonne Burne, said: "If you look at the statistics in higher education and university there are more young women than men and they do better, but we also know that later on there aren't as many women doing as well as the men. We want these girls to think they can do anything."
* Girls have continued to outperform boys at GCSE and this year's provisional exam results show 60.8 per cent of girls are gaining at least five A*-C grades, against 50.8 per cent of boys. But women still earn 15 per cent less than male colleagues for the same job, equivalent to pound;240,000 over a lifetime on the national average wage.