Women in the UK are making leaps and bounds in the world of higher education. Men at universities may even feel a little outnumbered as their female counterparts make up a staggering 55% of undergraduates.
However, while women outnumber men at universities and consistently outperform their male classmates at school, their presence is still notably absent in certain professions: research conducted by the Fawcett Society recently revealed that less than a quarter of MPs and a mere 14% of the senior judiciary are women. The statistics become ever bleaker when coupled with problems of poverty, a frequently cited obstacle to lofty ambitions.
Faced with the yawning gap in opportunities for men and women, Charly Young and Rebecca Dean set up a mentoring programme aimed at girls aged between 14 and 19 in disadvantaged communities, as a means of interweaving high-powered contacts with the classroom.
The scheme connects young people with a cross section of inspiring women from a wide range of industries, creating contacts they might not have had within their own social circle.
Since its launch this year, many noteworthy names have been added to the growing list of mentors from the tightly knit circles of journalism, engineering and law, including the Education Guardian columnist Fiona Millar.
I spoke to co-founder Charly Young, a Teach First graduate, about plans to help young women smash through the remains of a slowly shattering glass ceiling.
What first inspired you to create The Girls’ Network?
Working in low-income communities in North West London, we noticed that the girls we taught faced a poverty of aspiration and self-esteem. They knew no professional women and did not have access to the networks and opportunities that we took for granted growing up, and which their more affluent peers have at their disposal.
We invited in some female friends from a range of professions and backgrounds to speak to our girls, and the impact that just one evening had on their motivation and understanding of how to access their aspirations was huge. How transformational would it then be, we thought, to have these women work over a longer period of time with our girls. And so The Girls’ Network Mentoring was born.
What type of girls are you targeting?
We are targeting all girls from low-income communities, who do not have access to the opportunities and networks afforded to their wealthier peers by virtue of their background.
We work with girls who are at risk of dropping out of school and need to understand the wider context of their choices and the power they have to shape their futures. We work with ‘targeted’ girls, whose academic achievement is not as it could be, or who are lacking in motivation to engage with school and other opportunities offered to them. Finally, we work with girls who are academically very able but just do not have access to the additional opportunities and experience that are afforded to middle class girls by virtue of their networks and background.
What were your experiences of Teach First?
Teach First was a steep learning curve, but one of the most rewarding, inspiring and developing things either of us have done. It is a cliché, but a true one, that young people are some of the most interesting, hilarious and challenging people you will ever work with.
Teach First provided both Becca and I with an amazing training in leadership, and is a hugely supportive and responsive organisation to work for, constantly striving to do things even better. As participants, there were many opportunities to get involved in the things that interested us both in school and more widely with Teach First.
What are your aims at The Girls’ Network? How do you hope to inspire young women?
We aim to ensure that all young women have equality of opportunity – that girls are not limited by their background, but are enabled to take advantage of opportunities and thrive.
Mentors give girls the one-to-one support that helps to build self-esteem – because someone cares enough to give up time just for them, and because they have knew skills and experiences in which they can be confident, regardless of context.
The network also means girls can access work experience opportunities, attend interesting events, and meet inspiring role models, showing them that women can achieve just as much as men can, and they should not be limited by their gender.
What would you point to as the main causes for the under representation of women in Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering, given that women have greater freedoms than ever and actually outnumber men at universities?
Despite greater freedoms, women are still underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professions, largely because there is a lack of awareness and education across schools and amongst parents about STEM careers – what they actually entail, and what you need to study in order access the jobs. This means that young women are leaving university and do not have the qualifications needed for STEM careers, or without role models to demonstrate the appeal.
Meaningful work experience in these fields coupled with a greater awareness (across society at large, as well as in parents, teachers and young people) about what the jobs entail and that they do not need to be male-dominated will help to tackle this. Many of our mentors work in STEM professions – we recruit mentors from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Science Grrl, amongst other organisations – and this means that our girls are exposed to the many opportunities that this field offers.
We hope that this will filter through and we will begin to see a much more equal representation across STEM professions.
When we first started working with the 16 and 17 year old girls at a secondary school in North West London, more than 70% said they had no idea what they wanted to do when they left school. Many said they’d probably just stay at home. Some had aspirations of university, but didn’t really know what they would study, and some thought the might get a job locally – maybe train at a college as a beautician or hairdresser and then work in a nearby salon.
After six sessions with their mentors, 45% of those girls said that they were now considering a job in science or engineering, having previously been unaware of the types of job they could do in these fields. And of those 45%, nearly a third have received an offer to study a STEM subject at a top university.
To apply to become a mentor for The Girls’ Network you must first attend a training session – details here.
Written by: Charlotte Walmsley at Cardiff University