Educate girls – save the planet

Do you remember a TV series from about 15 years ago called Heroes? The catchphrase was ‘save the cheerleader, save the world’.

Well, my catchphrase is ‘educate the girl, save the world’.

It’s more than a catchphrase, though – it’s real.

A recent report from Project Drawdown[1] said that one of the most important keys to tackling climate change is “access to … high-quality, inclusive education”.

Worldwide, “[w]omen with more years of education have fewer and healthier children… [they] realize higher wages and greater upward mobility, contributing to economic growth. Their rates of maternal mortality drop, as do mortality rates of their babies. They are less likely to marry as children or against their will. They have lower incidence of HIV/AIDS and malaria. Their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished.”

This is why I’m focussed on the transformative power of girls’ education – both in developing nations and here in the UK.

In the UK, we’re still far from being a fair place for women and girls – and it looks like the pandemic has halted and even reversed some of the progress we have been making. The horrific toll of domestic abuse on women has been made worse by lockdown, as women feel they have no escape from their abusers. When schools are closed, mixed-sex couples often decide it’s more affordable for the lower earner (usually the woman, thanks to the gender pay gap) to sacrifice her career, so childcare and home education falls disproportionally on mothers rather than fathers. Globally, women’s job losses due to Covid-19 are 1.8 times greater than men’s[2] – so much so that some commentators are calling this a she-cession[3] to set it apart from previous recessions.

Yet where are the women making the decisions for England?

Politicians have repeatedly ignored and neglected the differential impact of their policies on women – so much so that Caroline Nokes, Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, described it as “institutional thoughtlessness”.[4]

It’s timely that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘choose to challenge’. How do we choose to challenge this thoughtlessness?

It’s a thoughtlessness that pervades artificial intelligence too. AI ‘learns’ from the information available to it, and if that information is biased or incomplete, or treats men as the ‘default’ sex, then poorly written algorithms can reflect and amplify those biases back at us.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that AI is going to have more and more influence over how we work and how we live. We also know that we cannot leave the design of the future to men alone, women have to be designing the future alongside them – and we have to inspire girls to be inspired by it.

Of all the possible investments we can make in the future, it’s probably no surprise that I think education must be the priority. GDST Sixth Form students think so, too. When we recently asked them in a survey what they think will make the most difference in making a more equal world for women and men, nearly 50% said women in leadership positions. And how do women take up pole position in public life? Through education – and nearly 30% of GDST students in the same survey said education was first and foremost the route to gender equality.

Through education, we can help young people – boys and girls – grow up into confident, committed, determined individuals, ready to tackle injustice, build a more equitable society, and remake the world as a better place for all.

Cheryl Giovannoni
Chief Executive Officer