Assembly: what does a feminist look like?

At Churchill, our vision is “to set no limits on what we can achieve.” Sometimes those limits can come from with ourselves – the nagging self-doubt that says “I’m not clever enough,” or “I’m not brave enough,” or “I can’t.” We work hard with our students to build their confidence so that they can talk back to those limiting voices.

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However, some of those limits can also come from outside, and some of them are invisible. I am a feminist because I can see that gender stereotypes and traditional roles act as limits that can prevent young people – boys and girls – from achieving their true potential.

For me, feminism means believing that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It means believing that nobody – male or female – should be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged by their gender. I have always been a feminist, but I have been particularly energised by the He For She initiative launched by Emma Watson at the United Nations in 2014. This initiative invites men to commit to gender equality, and provides tools to enable them to do so.

No more advertising stereotypes?

My assembly this week was sparked by the new rule which came into force this month from the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA will no longer permit any advertising in the the UK which includes “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” That means that offensive stereotypes like these from the 1950s and 1970s will be outlawed altogether:

Although adverts like these are now things of the past, it would be wrong to assume that stereotypes are not passed on to children – often very young children – through the clothes they wear or the toys they play with.

Clothing with messaging like this includes a “drip, drip” effect which says that boys should be tough, heroic, physical, messy, and clever, whilst girls should be sensitive, secondary, pretty, and stupid.

Gendered toys and books are similar. Boys can be “brilliant,” but girls can only be “beautiful.” Girls can do chemistry and build towers of blocks – but only if it’s pink and includes gossip.

These stereotypes trap both boys and girls in limiting gender roles. It can lead to assumptions about which paths are, and are not, open to you in the future, as this video shows:

Girls can’t be heroes?

There is a well-known trope in cinema called “the Smurfette Principle.” This principle is based on the small blue cartoon characters, all of whom were male, except for a single blonde Smurfette. The Smurfette Principle says that, in movies where a group of characters goes on a quest to fix a problem, you are only allowed one female as part of the group – despite the population being 50/50! There are lots of films which follow this sexist principle:

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There has been much progress on this front in more recent times. In my assembly, I talked about the Avengers franchise as an example. In the first Avengers film, Black Widow was the only female hero, a lonely Smurfette. However, in the recent Avengers: Endgame (*spoilers ahead!*), Black Widow was joined by Captain Marvel, Nebula, Okoye, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Mantis, Shuri, Pepper Potts and Valkyrie  to form an all-female team in the battle against Thanos. Star Wars too has seen progress, with Daisy Ridley’s Rey providing a strong, brave female hero in the franchise. Such representation provides important role models to girls: you can be heroes too.

Boys don’t try?

It’s important to recognise that feminism is about equality for both genders. It’s not just about girls being held back by sexist stereotypes – boys are trapped too. Across England in 2018, 23.7% of girls achieved top grades (7-9) at GCSE, whereas only 17.2% of boys achieved those grades. This 6.5% gap was even larger at GCSE grades 9-4 (the old A*-C): 71.4% of girls achieved this threshold, whereas only 62.3% of boys did the same, a gap of 9.1%. One theory – a persuasive one – suggests that this is the result of traditional, stereotyped gender roles in the classroom. Girls are expected to work hard, complete homework, put their hands up, and behave well. It’s what girls do. For boys to show this behaviour – which we know leads to higher academic achievement – they need to break out of stereotypical “boy” behaviour. This can be hard to do, but if we are going to prevent gender roles from limiting potential, we need to enable both boys and girls to transcend those traditional roles. Boys have to try too.

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We do not want our girls trapped in a passive, timid cage where they do not have equality and cannot step up to their potential. We do not want our boys trapped in a narrow definition of masculinity where talking about feelings, showing sensitivity or vulnerability are seen as weaknesses. This is a mentally unhealthy situation to be in. Suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 20-49; it kills more men than road accidents, more than cancer, more than heart disease. If we don’t start unpicking this, we will be facing a significant problem. Men are imprisoned by their gender stereotypes too.

What does a feminist look like?

So what does a feminist look like? Well, it looks like anyone who is committed to breaking down the barriers that trap boys and girls, men and women, into outdated gender roles that unfairly advantage or disadvantage one over the other. It looks like Benedict Cumberbatch, Harry Styles, or President Obama, as well as Emma Watson, Caitlin Moran, or Taylor Swift. As Barack Obama said, in a 2016 speech:

“We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticises our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear.”

At Churchill we are committed to being a school where our boys can be strong and sensitive, and our girls can be sensitive and strong, so that we can truly set no limits on what we can achieve.

Finding your fire

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“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”

Plutarch

I often use that quotation when I am talking about education. When I was at school in north west London in the early 1990s, my mind was lit up by English Literature, and particularly poetry. My teachers were skilful and knowledgeable enough to feed that fire, which led me to studying English Language and Literature at university. The flame continued to burn brightly as I trained to teach English, and has been the torch that has guided me throughout my career. There is no greater pleasure than passing on that spark to somebody else, and seeing them get as excited as you do about your subject.

For me it was English. For others it’s Mathematics, or hockey, or cooking, or chemistry, or painting, dance, textiles, the saxophone…

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Our Year 7 students in a cookery workshop with Michelin-star-winning chef Josh Eggleton, and Churchill alumnus Nick Woodhouse, who completed an apprenticeship with Josh after leaving Churchill

Where our students have already found their passion, we do our best as a school to nurture it. But one of the most important things adults can do for young people is introduce them to as many new subjects, skills and experiences as possible. Every time we do, we open up possibilities. This could be the thing that really lights their fire.

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Game Stars competition winner Tabitha with Josh Eggleton (and me!) this week at the opening of the food rooms

Another important thing that we must do is help the next generation see that they don’t always have to do things the way that they have always been done. We have to help them see past stereotyping in subjects, jobs, and careers. We try hard to help our students challenge stereotypes and do things differently. We named the Athene Donald Building after the first woman to be made a professor in any of the physical sciences in Cambridge to show that women and girls have just as much of a future in scientific careers as men and boys.

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Our students Saffron, Mimi and Mia with the Soroptimists and dignitaries at this week’s Skirting Science event

This week we built on that tradition with our Skirting Science event, welcoming girls from nine different schools to Churchill to get experiences of possible futures in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, by hearing from women in those fields. Also this week we invited Michelin-starred chef Josh Eggleton to open the new food rooms to show that a career in the kitchen is not defined by gender but by skill, passion and enthusiasm.

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Students at work with forensic scientists from the University of the West of England (Bristol) at Skirting Science

The vision for our school is “to set no limits on what we can achieve.” If we are serious about this, it means that we need to challenge the limits that other people’s expectations place on us. We aim to kindle the flame that sustains the skills, talents, passions and enthusiasms of our young people, whether they pursue them within school or beyond.

Athene Donald’s speech from the opening ceremony

This week saw the opening ceremony of the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology at Churchill. Our guest of honour was Professor Dame Athene Donald herself.

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The opening ceremony began with our Chamber Choir, who gave a fantastic rendition of Blue Skies, arranged by our very own Mr Spencer. Polly and Freya, the Year 8 students who suggested the building be named in her honour, then introduced Professor Donald, who gave an inspiring speech to the assembled guests. Outgoing President of the Sixth Form Council, Libby Scott, gave the vote of thanks, before the guests were shown round the classes currently in session in our wonderful new facilities.

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With her kind permission, I reproduce Professor Donald’s speech here in full, so that all our staff, students and the wider Academy community can benefit from her inspiring and positive message.

It’s wonderful to be here today. And it’s wonderful to see a school able to provide such fantastic facilities for science and with such a strong commitment to encouraging girls and young women to pursue science to A levels and university.

We’ve just heard the Chamber Choir sing Blue Skies. That is a song that I chose for one of my Desert Island Discs, because it has a particular significance for me. When I was in the USA and my research was going very badly, I found the balance in my life by singing Barbershop with three students in my (engineering) department. It helped me get through some otherwise miserable times and helped me to persist. To the students here I would say remember that life does not always go according to plan, but finding ways – and people – to help you through difficult periods is very important. Music was my escape and support.

Let me say straight away how deeply honoured I am to have been chosen to have this building named after me. It is not the sort of honour that I ever expected, not something that would ever have crossed my mind when I myself was a teenager.

Having first class facilities is undoubtedly something that will make a difference to every student – not to mention staff member – who works in the new building. So many schools have to make do with out of date and often depressing surroundings in which to do their science, and that is hardly likely to inspire the next generation that this is an exciting area to pursue.

Science – which I use as shorthand to include engineering and technology of course – has a crucial role to play in our world. Whether or not a child goes on to study science in later years, if they have a feeling of comfort with the subject means that so many of the big issues – be it climate change and the necessary energy transition we all have to make, or interpreting health risks or what AI may mean for our society – will not feel so scary and unapproachable.

Working at their science lessons in a modern block will provide a congenial atmosphere in which to get to grips with these important subjects.

And what about girls and women in science? Why do I care so passionately about this? Firstly there is the moral argument – why should 50% of the population feel that science is not for them, particularly given its role in empowering citizens in our democracy? But secondly there is the fact that we as a society need the best brains contributing to drive innovation and insight and losing these is a loss to society as a whole. We need to make sure that every young adult in this country whatever their gender, race or background – has access to good science teaching and encouragement to pursue their dreams, whatever they may be. That some children are told they can’t do one subject or another either explicitly or simply implicitly in the messages our society and media give, is not good enough. We need their brains and their talent.

The L’Oréal tagline, as I learnt when I won the Laureate for Women in Science for Europe ten years ago, is that ‘The World needs science and science needs women’. One does not need to care about cosmetics – and I am a bad poster child for L’Oréal as I am very allergic to most of them – to recognize the truth and importance of that sentence.

When I was a teenager, attending an all girls school, no one told me it was odd to want to pursue physics. No one put me off and we had good facilities and good teaching. When I went to university I found out that I was in a minority and I have been ever since. I was the first woman to be made a professor in any of the physical sciences in Cambridge, something I still feel very proud of. I am, indeed, the first woman to be Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, a college that uniquely admits 70% of its students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We have an incredibly diverse intake but, because of its emphasis on these subjects, not as many young women as I would like. We are working on that, but I hope the brightest of your own students would aspire to come to a college like ours.

I am truly humbled that you chose to name your new block after me, not after the usual suspects of Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin. I hope in some small way the knowledge that women like me can thrive in the sciences will inspire future generations. I wish the school all the very best as this new space is up and running.

Congratulations and best wishes.

Professor Dame Athene Donald

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Women in STEM: to the stars

Tuesday of this week was one of those days when the stars aligned and I saw the same issue from multiple angles all within 24 hours. The issue was gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

Attitudes to STEM subjects by gender

First thing in the morning, I received an email bulletin highlighting some research which had just been published on attitudes to STEM subjects by gender at KS4. The findings made for challenging reading:

  • Girls enjoy STEM subjects less than boys: The proportion of male pupils who ranked KS4 STEM subjects first for enjoyment was almost twice that for females: 59% vs. 32%.
  • Girls are less likely to say STEM is their best subject: When asked which subject they were best at, the proportion of male pupils who ranked a STEM subject first was 60%, which again was almost twice as high compared to females at 33%.
  • Boys are more likely to think STEM leads to a job: When asked about which subjects were most likely to lead to a future job, 69% of male pupils ranked a STEM subject first compared to 51% of females.
  • Girls and boys both name STEM as leading to highest paid jobs: When asked which would lead to the highest paid job, 81% of male pupils named a STEM subject compared to 77% of females.
  • Girls are less likely to pursue STEM at A level: When asked what they planned to study at A-Level, female pupils made up the minority of those naming STEM subjects. Particularly, in Engineering (14% / 86%), Computing (15% / 85%) and Physics (22% / 78%).

Combating gender inequality is a particular mission of mine, and it is one of the reasons we have named our new Science and Technology building after a prominent female scientist, Professor Dame Athene Donald. We are doing better than the national average at Churchill, where we have a 54% to 46% split of students taking Science and Maths courses in our Sixth Form. But there is still work to do, as there is considerable variation between subjects.

Dr Sue Black and Bletchley Park

 

After school that same day, I was listening to an interview with Sue Black on my drive home. Sue Black is a prominent software engineer, keen to promote women in computer science. She was also instrumental in the campaign to save Bletchley Park, where ten thousand people (including Alan Turing, after whom another of our buildings is named) built some of the first computers and cracked the Enigma code used by the Nazis during World War Two. More than half of the people who worked there were women. No-one had any previous experience of computers. In 2019, there are fewer women working in tech than there were in the 1960s. How has this happened? Sue Black was an inspirational figure, challenging the stereotype of the software engineer and the systems analyst to show that women have a vital role to play in the future, as well as the history, of computer science.

Professor Jo Dunkley and Henrietta Swan Leavitt

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Professor Jo Dunkley, OBE

Later that evening, I was driving back to school for governors’ meeting listening to a science podcast about how to measure the size of the universe. One of the guests was Professor Jo Dunkley, a physicist from Princeton University in America. Her research is in cosmology, studying the origins and evolution of the Universe, and she made this complex and challenging subject accessible and fascinating. She too described how, in her field, women make up 20% or less of the physicists looking at space, the stars, and cosmology, yet the women were every bit as talented and clever as any of the men. And she too had a tale of how, in the past, women made a huge contribution to the field of cosmology, astronomy and astrophysics.

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Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Professor Dunkley told the story of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer working at Harvard University in the early 20th century. She was part of a group of women known as the “Harvard Computers“, hired to carry out calculations and process astronomical data in the days before electronic computers. In those days women were not allowed to operate the telescopes themselves – this was a male only environment. Instead, they studied the photographic plates produced by the telescopes. It was in doing this that Leavitt, who was profoundly deaf following an illness, made her ground-breaking discovery. She was studying a group of stars called the Cepheid variables. These stars pulsed at different rates, and Leavitt worked out a mathematical relationship between the brightness of these stars and the frequency of their pulses. This relationship, now known as “Leavitt’s Law,” allowed astronomers to measure the distance from Earth to faraway galaxies for the first time. It also enabled future astronomers such as Edwin Hubble to firmly establish that the universe was expanding.

Gender Equality

It was a freakish coincidence that, after reading about the inequality in perceptions of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths between boys and girls in 2019, I should then be confronted with these fantastic examples of prominent women in STEM from the present day and the past. The majority of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park were 18 year-old women, just out of school, with no prior experience of computer science – yet they contributed to cracking the Nazi codes and saving millions of lives by shortening the Second World War. The very notion of computer science was, of course, invented by a woman – Ada Lovelace, back in the 1840s. In the present day, women like Dr Sue Black are blazing a trail for women in computer science and technology.

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Ada Lovelace, painted in 1832

In the field of astronomy, cosmology and astrophysics, the foundations of our ability to measure the universe were laid by women – the Harvard Computers who were not even allowed to operate the telescopes. Prominent cosomologists such as Jo Dunkley continue their work today, including estimating the mass of the universe and studying distant galaxies.

Why is it, with this rich history and vibrant present of women in STEM, that so few girls go on to study Physics or Computing at A-level in this country? I don’t know, but I hope with examples like Lovelace, Leavitt, Black, Dunkley and Athene Donald to follow, we will see the trend reverse and true gender equality achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Millicent Fawcett: a hero of Gender Equality

This week has been the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, the bill which finally gave women the vote on 6th February 1918. Even then, only women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification were able to vote, which enfranchised only 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to 15 million.

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Millicent Fawcett

One of the heroes of the suffrage movement was Dame Millicent Fawcett. Fawcett was born in 1847, and developed an interest in women’s rights at a young age. Her sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, was the first female doctor in Britain. In 1866, at the age of 19, Millicent became the secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. She dedicated her life to campaigning for equal rights for women. Fawcett was a suffragist, not a suffragette. She distanced herself from the militant and sometimes violent activities of the suffragettes, preferring instead to work within the law.

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Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst

Fawcett spoke at her first public pro-suffrage meeting in 1869, and took over as the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1890. She held this position until 1919, a year after the Representation of the People Act finally achieved the aims she had been campaigning for over the past 53 years.

When the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 was to be signed into law, the 81-year-old campaigner, now a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, wanted to witness the historic moment. She made her way to the House of Lords in plenty of time for the ceremony, which was due to start at 6.30pm on 3rd July. Unfortunately, the House of Lords had completed their other business more quickly than anticipated, and brought the signing ceremony forward to six o’clock. After 62 years of campaigning, Dame Millicent arrived less than a minute too late to see the law conferring equal voting rights to women given royal assent.

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Fawcett died the following August, in 1929, aged 82. She was born into an era where women were seen and not heard, where they had few rights, and where they were widely believed to be “the weaker sex.” Over her lifetime, the rights of women were transformed; by the time of her death women had the same voting rights as men. Little wonder, then, that Fawcett won the vote for “most influential woman” of the last 100 years run this week by BBC Radio 4, or that she has been chosen as the subject a commemorative statue to be erected in Parliament Square.

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Artist Gillian Wearing with a model of the Fawcett statue

It is fitting that Fawcett continues to break new ground for women, even today: hers is the first statue of a woman to be erected in Parliament Square. The plinth will feature the names of 59 women and men who fought for women’s suffrage; it will be unveiled in April. In the statue, Fawcett holds a placard with a line from a speech she gave after the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby: “courage calls to courage everywhere.”

Fawcett’s work remains incomplete, however: there are still significant gender inequalities at work in our society today. That is why Churchill Academy & Sixth Form has signed up to the Gender Equality Charter, with the aim of challenging and correcting gender imbalances wherever we find them. Click here to find out more.

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Millicent Fawcett in 1870

If you want to learn more about the campaign for women’s right to vote and its impact on women’s rights and equality to the present day, you can join me in signing up for a free five-week online course (MOOC) called Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today run by Royal Holloway and the UK Parliament.