10th September 2014: Four hundred 15 year old girls, arranged around fourty-odd tables, in the lecture hall at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. And a Tardis. This was the Educating 21st Century Women conference, and I was attending as a panel speaker.
The conference was organised by Mulberry School, a truly wonderful non-selective, all-girls state school in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. The diversity of uniforms in the room, however, was testament to the fact that girls from all over southeast England were in attendance. The atmosphere was electric, but focussed. That morning they’d heard from Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd and choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, amongst others, about gender issues in the Arts and Broadcasting. My panel, on STEM careers, was up next. So, no pressure…
Alongside me on the panel were Lady Geek’s Belinda Parmar, Teach First’s Ndidi Okezie and Pathologist Professor Paola Domizio. Kirsten Bodely from STEMNET chaired.
Questions from the floor focussed on our career paths – how we came to do what we do, the challenges faced along the way, and what advice we’d give to girls today. Apart from the horrified gasp from the room when I told the story of me dropping arts in favour of science subjects at A Level because the course-work got in the way of my teenage social life (I’m not proud and think this May have been a big mistake), I hope my advice was sound. This is what I tried to get across:
- be honest with yourself about what you want out of life — don’t waste your time chasing other people’s dreams for you, however well intentioned they may be.
- don’t allow other people’s ideas of ‘success’ to define you (see above).
- if you don’t know what you want to do, then focus your efforts on what you are good at and what you enjoy. Work at them. That ought to bring you to a place where you have a good chance of being happy.
- Be proud of who you are, and where you came from. Don’t apologise for your origins. But equally don’t be shackled by them.
- It’s never too late. You can change direction in your life at any point. It might be a bit harder, but it can be done.
- Don’t let fear of failure hold you back. One of the biggest advantage privilege & wealth gives is the freedom (and confidence) to take risks and make mistakes. But even without these, it’s not the end of the world if you mess up or make the wrong choice (see also previous point).
I also talked about the power of mentors and networks, and how TrowelBlazers has emphasised the importance of these for me. This led me to give one rather more specific piece of advice: don’t be afraid to contact people in high places for help and advice. As a school student it would never have crossed my mind that you could contact (read ‘bother’ in my mind) academics and the like for work experience. I didn’t know anyone who worked at a university, and no one in my family had even been to university. It was an intimidating world. Now I am inundated with requests for work experience, but always from public- or private school students. Never state school. I want state school kids to feel as confident about their rights to such advice and experience as fee-paying ones.
By the end of lunch, I had plenty of requests 🙂
But by far the most inspirational part of the day for me came after our panel, when the poet Hollie McNish read her ‘three most hated poems’. Hated by people like the English Defence League, that is. Her feminist take on being asked by a TV director to pose naked for a short film on her poetry had the room on their feet and cheering, as did her funny, polemical tirade against her parent’s next-door neighbours’ anti-immigrant opinions. By the end the whole room was ready to take to the barricades and bring on a multicultural feminist revolution!
To get some idea of just how brilliant Hollie is, watch this video of her performing ‘Mathematics’:
And the Tardis? Well that was there because the conference saw the reincarnation of Dr Who as a woman, as designed by the girls themselves. If only it becomes TV reality one day…