The notion that women can “have it all” is not the kind of feminism we should be teaching women, says the Girls School Association in the UK. Gwen Byrom is the new president of the GSA (and is also the headmistress at Loughborough High School) and believes instead girls should be learning a more nuanced view of feminism, in order to more fully prepare them for the real world. The GSA represents the heads of the country’s leading independent girls’ schools.
In an interview with the Telegraph, she said the “having it all” idea is outdated, and actually prohibits girls from reaching positions of power as they have unrealistic expectations of what having power, or even gender equality, means.
“One message is that you can’t be a successful leader if you have children. The other message has been in the past that you can have it all, you can have everything and do everything. I think we are now getting to a more nuanced position [where] you can talk about the challenges that face families, and that face partners…if they have very busy working lives,” she said, explaining how the idea has evolved in the current wave of feminism and age of female empowerment.
We are certainly seeing more high profile professional women being candid about the challenges of juggling family with career. You may remember the viral images of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli who has been bringing her daughter to Parliamentary sessions since she was 6 weeks old, swaddled in a baby wrap. It was a progressive and positive imagery of mothers in the workforce.
Let’s not forget tech executive Marissa Mayer being appointed the CEO of Yahoo! when she was 6 months pregnant. And speaking of pregnancy, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just announced her own, making her only the second world leader to have a baby while in office. While these are women who show it is possible to successfully balance family and career at a high level (if having a family is something a woman decides she wants to do, many do not), they have also been open about it being an ongoing challenge, rather than presenting an unrealistic view.
Gwen Byrom says the nuance that exists in how a woman tackles those challenges is what young girls need to see more discussion about.
“How do women step up into leadership roles and balance those challenges? We are coming to that position – we are saying it is not about either/or and it is not about having it all. It is working out what works for you,” she said.
She went on to say that visual representations of women are the best way this nuance an be taught, rather than a traditional “textbook” lesson, so to speak.
“I think it is a conversation for students generally about their lives, how they will manage themselves and how they are going to manage their commitments over their life…It is about how you talk about your own situation. It is about being open about the challenges we face. I am a working mother, I took my last period of maternity leave while I was a head. That was obviously fairly visible,” she said.
Gwen has 5 children of her own ranging in age from 2-19 and says promoting and talking about women in leadership is very important to her personally. Her husband Andy, also a teacher, has been primarily looking after the children while she worked full-time, according to another interview with the Sunday Times in December 2017.
“I wouldn’t necessarily set myself up as a role model for the girls in my school – but they may look at me and say if the head can do it, if the head can have a family and a busy job, then maybe I can as well,” she said.
Part of being open about sharing her own story with students is challenging traditional gender stereotypes.
“My husband loves being at home with the kids. It is not a stereotypical male role but one he very much enjoys…The whole thing about gender equality [is] it is not just about women. It is about men too, about men feeling straitjacketed with their own gender stereotypes of being the strong man and the breadwinner,” she said.
“They should be given the chance to say they want to play a bigger role at home in the same way women are offered leadership opportunities at work,” she added.
Gwen may have only just started her role as President, but it seems she is already part of a thriving environment where girls are given an opportunity to discuss, dissect and challenge issues relating to gender through GSA.
At the 2017 Girls Day School Trust, 26 schools gathered to answer the question “Is 2017 a good time to be a girl?”. Girls being given ample space to think about gender and how going through the world as a female is inherently political is going to do far more than simple and outdated “you can have it all!”-type statements.
The organization also launched an initiative called Dads4Daughters, inspired by UN Women’s He For She campaign, with the aim to engage fathers in the fight for gender equality, recognizing they can play a key part in ensuring their daughters don’t have to face what their mothers and grandmothers did.
If we are ever going to truly see widespread change and equality in the next generation, it must begin with conversations at an early age, and breaking away from binary, limited definitions of feminism. At a time when there is an even greater need for more women in leadership in a range of industries, it’s important to see schools including this topic into their culture.