Showing true grit

Helen Jeys believes that building resilience and perseverance are as important for girls as getting good exam results

Several popular celebrities, including Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé, have recently proposed that we should ban the word ‘bossy’ when describing girls. The #BanBossy campaign asserts that girls fear being labelled ‘bossy’ as the word carries with it negative connotations which are more frequently associated with the stereotypical ‘Queen Bee’ than a chief executive. Rather, as Sheryl Sandberg states, “I want every girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.”

The campaign has good intentions. Indeed, it cites a study by the Girl Scout Research Institute, which reports that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles would make them seem bossy. It is this fear, apparently, that is preventing girls from aiming for such positions.

I think, like many, that this campaign misses the point. Being bossy, I would argue, is not the same as being an effective leader. Rather than focusing on banning a word or a label, surely we should focus on encouraging girls to embrace what it really means to lead and to enable them to develop the confidence to reject negative reactions from those around them. Part of this will include addressing the problems caused by deteriorating self-esteem among girls as they approach their teenage years and encouraging qualities such as resilience and perseverance. This is not an easy task. One need only consider the recent launch of the ‘body confidence’ badge by Girlguiding UK in March 2014 to appreciate the concerns relating to esteem and body-image among the girls in our schools.

However, focusing on teaching character will involve possibly controversial changes in our schools where our focus and duty to our students are often predominantly seen as helping them to achieve GCSE and A level success. In October 2013, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published a report which stated that “schools need to do more to prepare students broadly for work including assisting with work experience and promoting ‘character’ skills. Schools need to focus on developing those skills alongside improving their pupils’ academic attainment. It is not a question of either/or. Schools need to be doing both.” We all, therefore, need to consider how we are empowering our students to gain those characteristics which will be crucial for their future success.

In my school, we have begun this important journey. Girls are encouraged to become resilient, determined, empowered and successful, to embrace the importance of failure and to view challenges as stepping-stones to future progress. From our younger students in the preparatory department dressing up as inspirational women for the day to the focus in our Founders’ Day celebrations on the lives of those long gone who believed in the importance of educating women, our students are encouraged to embrace the opportunities of leadership positively. In our recent Perseverance Week, girls shared their own recollections on the importance of perseverance and resilience in their own lives – in both academic and non-academic contexts.

Perhaps, therefore, we can all learn something from the system being introduced in Singapore this year. Identified by the OECD as “at or near the top of most education ranking systems”, Singapore is introducing a new curriculum of character and citizenship education. As Minister of Education Heng Swee Keat puts it, the basis for this significant change is the recognition that “we must put character development at the core of our education system … Personal values such as grit, determination and resilience enable the individual to realise his or her potential … These values are intertwined, and are critical to the success of the individual and the society.”

Surely it is this positive approach that will encourage and enable change, and not the media highlighting the misjudged link of the celebrity endorsed #BanBossy campaign.

Helen Jeys is Deputy Head Mistress at Manchester High School for Girls

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