Successful women will be sharing their stories and helping Shaftesbury schoolgirls understand their future potential during a special event on Friday.
‘Hey Girl’ – a girls talk symposium, has been arranged for pupils in years 7-13 by language teacher Susan Rancourt. “This isn’t a careers forum. It’s a space for them to come in and to listen to women’s stories and to hear women from a very diverse background,” said organiser Susan.
She has booked a wide range of speakers. “Most exciting for the kids at the moment is an ‘Insta-influencer’ coming all the way from Bristol. She’s a stylist and does fabulous things. We have a chartered surveyor and a solicitor who is responsible for one of the largest industrial development sites outside of London. There is a publicist and an independent journalist for The Guardian. I also have a stay-at-home mum, a nurse and a cottage industry businesswoman who set up her own business. There’s also a textile designer. It’s a real eclectic mix. I have people of different ages as well. So really, the girls will be able to see a plethora of different women doing different things and achieving different things,” said Susan.
The pupils will have time to ask advice from the guests and discuss issues with them. “They will be sat round tables in smaller groups with the speakers, for maybe 8 to 10 minutes, depending on how many children will be here on the day,” said Susan.
“The guest speakers have a series of questions that they have been given so that they can prep. They focus around ‘positive body image’, ‘taking your place’ and also things like ‘did your career choose you, or did you choose it?’, ‘finding that drive’ and ‘deciding what’s important to you and where you want to take it’. So they will have a much more intimate session where they will be able to ask questions, respond and get immediate feedback from the speaker. They’ll have a short time, I suppose a bit like a speed-dating scenario, and then they will be changing,” said Susan.
The event organiser wants to share some important life lessons with the girls. “For me, the biggest thing is knowing how to say what needs to be said when the time counts. So, being able to accurately describe what you’re trying to create or produce or your opinion on a subject matter. And knowing that it is okay to take a breath and have a reflection on that before answering the question.”
Susan recently relocated from Quebec, where she worked closely with an entrepreneurial businesswoman who inspired her to host this type of event. “This was something that she believed in a lot. It’s about women nurturing, encouraging and helping younger women coming up through the ranks. Her focus was very much in business and when I started at Shaftesbury, I thought that this is something that could really be used for the young women here as well. It could help to give them a viewpoint that isn’t based around social media or TV or film, but something that gives them a real-life example of what some really incredible women are doing day-to-day.”
Susan’s experience in business in Canada has given her an insight into today’s commercial environment. “Coming from industry myself, I think is a really tough place out there. I’m not saying it’s more difficult, necessarily, for women, but I think that as our lives progress, we have different time constraints on us. We have different upbringing experiences that mean that we react differently to situations in life and I think it’s important that young women are made aware that it doesn’t matter. It is something to be embraced,” said Susan.
“You often hear ‘Oh, she’s such a chatterbox. She’s so chatty. She’s always talking’. It’s really taking that idea –women traditionally have been very good at sitting down together and talking about feelings and emotions and turning it on its head and making it a strength. These women are coming in to talk about their life experiences. Hopefully, the girls will take snippets from that and it will encourage and inspire them further.”
Change is sweeping through Canada, with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s progressive politics and gender-balanced cabinet. “Trudeau is doing wonderful things for Canada and I think that feeds down from the top,” says Susan. But she says she still encountered dated views in the workplace. “I would hear comments like, ‘Oh Susie’s here and we can have a cup of coffee now’, for example, when I was part of the board of directors that was meeting. I think there is a lot of subverted discrimination that still happens, from what I’ve seen in Canada. I think it’s changing very slowly because, at the moment, the people in the top positions feel like they’re almost an entire generation away from where middle management is.”
Back to Shaftesbury School and Susan doesn’t believe that the girls that she teaches here feel they are held back from achieving because of their gender. “Quite the contrary, actually, especially in a school like Shaftesbury. It’s really championed by the head, Tim Farrer. He has really helped me and supported me through this project.”
Some lads have even enquired about the girls-only session. “Shaftesbury School is quite a supportive environment and I’ve had a couple of questions of ‘Can I come Miss?’ I said, ‘maybe the next one or maybe we will have a ‘Hey Boy’. I don’t think this is a particular thing that women necessarily need more than boys,” said Susan. “We’ll just see how this one goes and then take it from there,” she added.
The success of the Shaftesbury School event is being watched by schools elsewhere. “I already have interest from a school in Taunton where a colleague of mine is. He works a lot with a local charity promoting social and emotional mental health in school,” said Susan. “He has asked me if I would be happy to help him set up an event in his school. They’re very excited about it, so I’m hoping that it will be a huge success and then people will start doing it all over the place. It would be good to have that positive outlet to get young women really excited about what their future could hold.”
The Hey Girl – Girls Talk event is for pupils and staff only. It runs from 4pm to 6pm at Shaftesbury School on Friday 10th May.