Thinking about our girls
I’ve been thinking a lot about girls recently. Thinking about how they think about themselves, how they care too much what other people think about them and about how we can help them to take their place in the world free from the weight of other people’s expectations. I don’t know if it’s the same for boys. They probably have it hard too. In a world which seems largely designed by men and for men, it is easy to believe that it’s so much more straightforward to be a boy. I’m sure that it probably isn’t but I’ve been thinking about our girls.
I have an identical twin sister, a daughter and four nieces. Every one of them (of us) is or wants to be a high achiever. In my school of 450 girls, I would estimate that at least 449 (and actually probably 450) of them want to be high achievers too. Most of them/us also want to be popular, well liked, attractive, respected, listened to and noticed. But how do we get girls to ditch the tyranny of perfection? How do we get them to like themselves irrespective of whether other people do? We’ve moved a long way from a time when girls were not expected to achieve much or aspire to anything beyond domesticity; now we tell them they can be anything they want. When my daughter was little she wanted to be Cinderella, Dorothy and to save the colony (following a trip to see A Bug’s Life). My son wanted to be the Tesco delivery man! Can you be Cinderella and save the colony at the same time?
Do we weigh our girls down with our expectations of success? Instead of telling them they can’t, we tell them they can. The can be scientists, medics, lawyers, headteachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, footballers or anything else. I know it’s a generalisation but I see time and time again in school how much girls want to please; how they hate criticism, how they need to be liked and how they read their worth in the opinions of others. They drive themselves on in pursuit of both their own ambition and the approval of other people.
I never encountered so much misogyny as I did in my first year of headship. Nobody wanted a female head. Letters were written to the chair of governors; people resigned. I knew that if I failed then the school would probably never appoint a female head again, judging an entire gender on my success or not. I knew that if I were a man and did a bad job, the community would, no doubt, just think they had got unlucky and happily appoint another man. The same latitude would not be given to me. Luckily I think I’m doing alright. I’ve held things up ok for the rest of my sex but it could have been very different.
Look at the way Nicola Sturgeon was treated in the run up to the election. It’s still ok it seems to comment on a woman’s clothes and appearance or deride her in a way that would never happen to a man (well a man who wasn’t Ed Milliband). Every time a crowd chants “Get your tits out” to a female referee or line judge, thousands of women thank heaven they have not put their heads over the parapet and gone against the grain. Why on earth would a woman aspire to power or to blaze a trail and subject herself to the kind of abuse and ridicule that seems to be reserved largely for women?
Recently a female student complained that a member of staff had told her off for carrying her blazer rather than wearing it: “It’s not a handbag”, he said. “Would he have said that to a boy?” she asked me. Probably not I concurred and had a word. I’m sure there are numerous other examples of casual sexism that take place on a daily basis. We want our girls to believe that they can do or be anything yet our behaviours all too often reinforce the opposite.
I want our girls to be brave, vocal and challenge discrimination in all its forms. I want them to eat well, be fit and healthy and stop punishing or hurting themselves if they don’t feel that they are good enough or pretty enough or clever enough. I want our girls to tell us when we’ve got it wrong and slipped into lazy, casual misogyny. I want them to know its ok to fail because making mistakes is how we learn. I want them to know its ok to say no and to stick to their guns if they believe in something. I want them to love their friends and know that girls don’t always have to fall out and that unkindness to others is not just “girls being girls”. I want to ban the word “bitchy” which as a specifically female insult manages to condemn nasty comments  whilst assigning them to girls.
Most of all I want girls to believe that whoever they want to be, that’s ok. It has to be possible for Cinderella to save the colony.