A princess, a spy and a socialite walk into a hall…

It’s not often you find yourself at an event with a doctor turned investment banker, a former spy chief, the brains behind Made in Chelsea, and – among others – not one, but two princesses. When it does, it’s a day to remember.

The High School’s Student Senior Leadership Team had been invited to attend a conference organised by the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools, entitled “Inspiring Future Female Leaders”. Our minibus set off early in the morning heading towards the winding lanes of rural Kent via the glamour of Newport Pagnell Services and the M25. Perhaps characteristic of our Year 13 students – aside from occasional conversations about Taylor Swift and other apparently popular figures – the journey became an impromptu personal-statement-editing and flashcard-wielding revision session. I was struck subsequently that the girls had preempted one of the common threads of the later conference: that you have to put in work and effort to be successful in your chosen field, that you have to be proactive in grabbing opportunities that come your way and that, in the words of Georgina Seccombe, Team GB’s Chef de Mission, “no-one’s going to do it for you”.

If individual effort and dynamism were two of the keywords that connected various speakers’ contributions, another was collaboration. We arrived just in time to hear the Head of Benenden College, Samantha Price, describe collaboration as a specific strength of female leaders, a view that was echoed by Dr Amy Jadesimi and others. Again, in the minibus on our way back to school, it was the girls themselves who showed that they understood this not in theory but in practice, working together to organise SSLT drop-in sessions to help younger students and developing plans to share with Years 12 and 13 to improve the Sixth Form Common Room. I would like to think that this ready focus on positive collaboration has been instilled in part through the High School’s expertise in girls’ education.

Dr Jadesimi, who is now Chief Executive of Lagos Deep Offshore Logistics Base, also made a thought-provoking link between women as leaders and global sustainability. Arguing that sustainability is part of “the way women think”, she outlined how women are “critical” to future social and economic development and that sustainability “won’t come without gender equality”. She cited research that indicates that gender equality adds 3% to a country’s GDP, with other studies suggesting potentially even higher economic gains. The High School’s lively and successful Femsock and EcoTeam societies perhaps indicate how much these concepts are indeed integral to the ways young women, in particular, are thinking.

What about the barriers to leadership that women faced and continue to face, especially in the workplace? While the focus of the conference was on sharing practical approaches to developing as leaders and on inspiring young women to pursue leadership opportunities, speakers were candid about some of the challenges and outright discrimination they had faced. Baroness Manningham-Buller, former Director General of MI5 and – more importantly perhaps – a former student at Northampton High, shocked the audience with descriptions of the institutional sexism that she encountered, especially in the early days of her career. But, in common with other speakers, she emphasised the ways in which strong mentors and a network of allies, as well as a focus on one’s own goals, can enable individual women to begin to challenge such entrenched barriers. I suspect her sense of humour helped her too, as she shared some wonderful stories about her career in MI5 (I would love to recount them here, but we were all sworn to secrecy).

A challenge that was recognised by HRH Princess Basma bint Talal of Jordan among others was the ways in which there is a tension between working life and family life that impacts women disproportionately. Baroness Manningham-Buller’s advice – “don’t be unkind to yourself” – chimed with Samantha Price’s opening statement to “prepare to get things wrong”. As they already know, there aren’t going to be solutions to all the challenges our young people face before they get started in the world.

We were also privileged to hear from three other speakers: Dame Didi Wong, Amber Atherton and HRH The Princess Royal. We came away from the day with a strong sense of some key themes, as described. Above all, though, I felt that, given the calibre of the young women at the event, the future is absolutely not as bleak as we are sometimes led to believe.

Mr Viesel
Director of Sixth Form