At Enlighten, we know that girls flourish and shine after our workshops, because we’ve seen it with our own eyes (and felt it in their big warm hugs!). But our work does so much more than give girls a self-esteem and confidence boost on the day. We aim to be part of a wider and ongoing culture change for the girls we work with, at school and beyond.
We encourage schools to maximise the benefit of our work by using it as part of a big-picture approach, and this week I’d like to share with you what I think is one of the best examples of a school doing just that. Jane Ferris, the principal of Asquith Girls High School, a public school in Sydney, last year attended a national conference in Melbourne that I was a keynote speaker at, “Insights: A Fresh Look at Girls’ Education”. In an unusual and forward-thinking move, she had brought along three of the school’s staff, too. They were inspired and felt that Enlighten’s message was what they needed, as part of the school’s broader program of improving outcomes for girls. Jane said:
When you have 900 young women attending an all girls’ school, it is a great opportunity to focus on issues confronting young women today. Since girls now outperform boys in external exams such as the HSC, it is too easy to consider that all the battles have been won and we no longer need to worry about issues in girls’ education. However, something is still holding young women back in our society as they are under-represented in business, our legal system and politics – what a waste of so much talent! Also, sadly, women as a group have too many experiences of abuse and violence. Therefore as a school we need to support young women to have a positive outlook, believe in themselves and ‘have a go’ in all that they strive to achieve.
From the outset, Jane saw that the greatest value would come from involving the whole school, so she organised her own one-day staff training conference for the teachers. I spoke, along with a number of other experts in teen girls’ issues. Then I came back to present to the girls, and something I have never experienced before happened: Jane released the entire welfare team for the day so they could come and watch me in action with the girls. This turned out to be incredibly valuable, because it meant that once I left, the staff had a deep understanding of what the girls had learned and experienced. They could speak the same language with the girls as I had, thus giving ongoing life to the work we’d done that day. The staff were empowered to be part of the culture change.
Jane notes that since starting their work on girls’ issues, the school’s “staff are more aware and taking things on board . . . At the nucleus is a gender team of staff and executive that have led a girls’ education conference and follow-up in all faculties.” They use every opportunity in the curriculum to promote the theme, Jane notes:
As Danni says, the most common glass ceiling holding girls back is the mirror they look in. Therefore this has proved a very positive starting point for our students, to think about themselves more positively. We want to follow through on this and get them to realise the pressures they are under as consumers. Through English and Commerce we want them to learn to deconstruct advertising and identify how they are being targeted in ways that not only ensure they buy more, but at the price of feeling they are not good enough. Through the curriculum we also want to make sure they learn about positive female role models.
Judging by the girls’ passionate and positive feedback, they were powerfully moved by the workshops I led. I am truly touched that one of the girls, Bec Torrington, in Year 9, has even nominated me for a Pride of Australia award in the Inspiration category. But kudos to Jane for seeing that there is wider, ongoing work to be done:
Danni is a highly motivational speaker and clearly has had a positive impact on the way our students feel. However, there are no quick fixes or magic wands. As a school we have to continue to promote a message of positive outlooks and friendships amongst our students.
In planning one always need to look at the big-picture rather than isolated programs or initiatives. Our approach is one of developing the whole young woman with a breadth of learning opportunities and extra curricular activities – to empower her with the experiences and skills to succeed in the world outside of school.
In light of Jane’s point about school staff working together to maintain a positive culture for girls, I’ve put together some discussion starters that schools might like to consider at their next staff meetings or staff development programs. These are based on previous blog posts, which can act as an impetus for discussion. Staff could split into groups, each considering one of these discussion starters, then report back to the whole staff:
Keeping Feminism Relevant
Rather than just fretting about and lamenting the plight of teen girls, at Enlighten we offer a viable alternative: feminism! This week a commentator in the UK made this excellent point, which I feel sums us up: “Feminists can make cause with traditionalists in wanting to limit some of the more extreme effects of an exploitative culture . . . But let’s be clear. We can only help [girls] if we have a good alternative to offer: the role models, the interesting jobs and the alternative ways of enjoying life that make a padded bra and a bit of rude dancing on the telly not shocking – just rather dull.” Yes!
– How are you connecting the young women at your school to the women’s movement?
Raising Girls Who Have the Courage to Be Imperfect
About embracing imperfection:
The Courage to Be Imperfect
– What signs are there that girls are numbing the feeling that they aren’t good enough?
– What steps can we start taking today to make the girls in our lives feel confident that they are loved and worthy?
Beyond Mean Girls
Bullying: It’s Time to Focus on Solutions
– In what ways does your school celebrate differences?
– What resources does your school currently access to assist in creating a safe environment for all students?
– How could these initiatives be enhanced?
About girls and information and communications technologies:
Real-World Tech Influencers
– How are the young women at your school encouraged to do creative, inspiring things using technology?
– Who are the female tech-influencers within your school who your girls can use as role models?
Girls and Eating
– How can your school encourage girls to make healthy choices without shaming them?
– How might the relationship girls have with food affect their academic performance?