Last week we reported that many fewer girls are studying vocational subjects than boys. Mentors benefit everyone, but maybe they can play a particularly important role in developing confidence in girls
Don’t you think feminism is going too far? I mean, shouldn’t everybody have equal opportunities, regardless of who they are? What about the boys?” This question was asked by an articulate 17-year-old girl at a conference for young women.
For her, feminism was not associated with equality but with giving women the upper hand. There has been much recent discussion about this; it perhaps might be argued that the word “feminism” has too much stigma attached to it, but that isn’t a reason to deny that a problem exists.
Research suggests that there are variances between boys and girls – and as a Teach First teacher I saw that girls really do face palpably different challenges.
So what are the differences, and how can schools help? Research carried out by professors Becky Francis and Christine Skelton of Roehampton University on the differences between boys and girls in the classroom found that:
• Girls are quieter and talk less, asking fewer questions
• Risk aversion is more prevalent in girls
• Boys dominate speaking time and teacher attention – girls can become “invisible” as a result
• Boys have higher self-esteem and fewer worries than girls
• Girls hold on to negative criticism more
• Boys tend to be over-confident, girls under-sell themselves.
Neurologically, there is very little difference between girls and boys at birth – certainly nothing that pre-determines aptitude, attitude or character. So why is there a difference when they reach school? Outdated stereotypes and misconceptions in society certainly don’t help but, at an individual level, I think it boils down to self-belief and lack of role models.
Maria, a 17-year-old girl on The Girls’ Network’s mentoring programme, summarised the predicament when she said: “There are girls who want to go out and get a career but some of us have stuff holding us back, like money or family, religion or culture. We don’t know how to get where we want to.”
It would be too simplistic to suggest that this is the only problem. However, it is one that schools can help to eradicate and so break the cycle of under-representation and lack of self-value faced by girls and women. Providing female role models, mentors and opportunities to develop skills to help overcome the obstacles that girls face is having an impact in many schools in the UK. Arranging a mentoring programme is an excellent way to educate girls on how to get where they want to, and to encourage them to pursue their dreams.
We live in a world where girls sometimes do need more support and do have to fight that bit harder
After a year of working one-to-one with a professional woman on our mentoring programme, girls spoke about the skills and confidence that they had developed and the opportunities that their mentor exposed them to. Perhaps surprisingly, many felt that simply travelling across London on their own, entering a “big, scary glass building” and meeting their mentor had a marked impact on their confidence.
Mentors can benefit everyone, but they play a particularly important role in developing confidence in girls. They enable them to see themselves in careers that they may not have imagined before, and equip them with the skills, confidence and know-how to take the steps to get there.
So, what I think I might have said to that young woman at the conference, if I’d had a chance, is that while, in an ideal world, everyone would have access to the same opportunities, with the same support and many role models to challenge and inspire them, the reality is that we live in an unequal, unfair world. A world where girls sometimes do need more support and do have to fight that bit harder. And, since young people are at such a formative age during their school years, it seems schools and mentors are a good place to start.
Charly Young is director and co-founder of The Girls’ Network