‘Act like a woman’ to get ahead at work, says leading headteacher

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‘Everyone will benefit if more of our leaders act like women, or indeed are women’, says the president of the Girls’ School Association

‘Act like a woman’ to get ahead at work, says leading headteacher
Heather Hanbury
Heather Hanbury, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, says ‘act like a woman’ to get ahead at work

Don’t man up but “act like a woman” to get ahead at work, the president of the Girls’ School Association has said.

Heather Hanbury has argued that being an empathetic “team player” is better for business than the traditional “alpha male” model of leadership, and this approach comes more naturally to girls.

Professionals looking to get ahead should “act like women” at work, the leading headteacher has said, claiming that everyone benefits from the spread of “feminine” skills.

She said:  “The world would certainly be a more generous, happier place with more empathy, sympathy and collaboration in it.

“Research shows time and again that tapping into these ‘soft skills’ that align with feminine qualities, delivers improved results across the board: in the world of work and of politics.

“Everyone will benefit if more of our leaders act like women, or indeed are women.”

Mrs Hanbury leads the Girls’ School Association (GSA), which represents the heads of single-sex schools in the UK, institutions she has described as “safe spaces” for girls to develop “feminine” qualities that are being increasingly sought after in the workplace.

These approaches to work include being more collaborative and collegiate, while making decisions in a more “democratic” way, Mrs Hanbury has said, as opposed to the competitive, glory-seeking and individualistic “traditionally male” approach long considered the model for leadership.

The GSA president has claimed that the cooperative leadership styles for which girls have a natural propensity are now prized in the workplace, citing a 2020 Goldman Sachs study suggesting female-led investment fund teams outperformed all-male teams, and Australian studies suggesting countries led by women suffered fewer Covid-19 deaths.  

Mrs Hanbury said:  “Traditionally many women, and girls learning as they come through school, are told that the way to succeed in the world is to act like a man.

“The opposite is proving to be of more interest, and frankly, more successful.”

While women might be predisposed to these collaborative behaviours, Mrs Hanbury has argued that “whatever their background, whatever their gender, whatever academic interest they have, whatever their goals in life… These are the traits all young people should be encouraged to develop”.

Defending single-sex education

She added:  “It is for anyone, and the more people who recognise that and act in this way, the better it is for all of us.”

The leader of the main professional association for girls schools has also argued that single-sex institutions should be preserved as “safe spaces” to nurture feminine qualities, claiming that in mixed schools there is  greater risk of girls being sidelined by male students, or forced to accept a traditionally male model of learning and leadership.

Girls schools offer a place for female students to “practice” without pressure, Mrs Habury said, adding:  “These spaces are where it’s safe for girls to have a good old argument about things, to disagree about things they are passionate about.

“We are building that confidence outside the threat of gender bias and misogyny and those sorts of things. They build confidence in their own ability to stand up and be counted.”

Mrs Habury, who herself leads the independent girls’ day school Lady Eleanor Holles in London, will address 150 other heads at the GSA Conference on the virtues of female leadership.

She will tell the conference that girls’ schools are vital in turning out “dextrous and empathetic human beings who will disrupt the outmoded myopic, competitively driven alpha style culture that so often ends up in burnout”.

Breakout Box

The top 12 Old Girls’ Networks and their alumni

North London Collegiate School, Harrow, London

Generally recognised as the first UK girls' school to offer girls the same educational opportunities as boys when it opened in 1850. Notable alumnae: Marie Stopes, journalist Anna Wintour, Esther Rantzen.

Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Founded in 1853, to provide 'a sound academic education for girls'. Introduced subjects such as maths and science, despite parental opposition that these were 'not suitable or necessary for girls'. Notable alumnae: Mary Archer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amber Rudd.

St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, London

Set up in 1904 to complement the boys' school founded by John Colet in the 16th century and now based in Barnes. Together, the schools topped the 2022 Top 100 Independent Day Schools A-level results, with an average of 95 per cent As or A*s. Notable alumnae: Joely Richardson, Kate Bingham, Rachel Johnson.

Oxford High School

When OHS opened in 1875, it boasted 29 girls and three teachers under headmistress Ada Benson. Notable alumnae: actresses Florence Pugh, Miriam Margolyes, Martha Lane Fox.

Queens College, London

This prep and secondary school founded in 1848 is located on London’s Harley Street. The college patron has always been a British queen, most recently, the late Queen Elizabeth. Notable alumnae: Unity Mitford, Peaches Geldof, Jameela Jamil, Asma al-Assad.

King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham

Founded in 1883, the school has consistently been ranked top of the national league tables for both A-level and GCSE. Notable alumnae: News presenter Reeta Chakrabarti, novelist Constance Savery, actress Lindsay Duncan.

Roedean School, Brighton

'Our aim is to nurture the girls' talents, to spark their curiosity, to develop their skills, and to let their imagination run riot,' says the motto of this school, founded in 1885. Notable alumnae: Tessa Dahl, actress Sarah Miles, Layla Moran MP.

Godolphin and Latymer, Hammersmith, London

This independent day school, located on six acres close to the Thames, celebrated its centenary in May 2005 with a service at St Paul's Cathedral. Notable alumnae: Carrie Johnson, Nigella Lawson, Davina McCall.

Wycombe Abbey, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Founded in 1896, this top-ranking school was requisitioned in March 1942 to serve as the headquarters of the United States Eighth Air Force. Notable alumnae: writer Penelope Fitzgerald, comedian Sally Phillips, BBC controller Charlotte Moore.

Benenden, Cranbrook, Kent

This boarding school, which celebrates its centenary next year, occupies a Victorian country house set in 250 acres of gardens and woodland in the Weald of Kent. Notable alumnae: Princess Anne, Rachel Weisz, comedian Morgana Robinson.

St Leonards, St Andrews, Fife

Established in 1877, with the belief of the school was that 'a girl should receive an education that is as good as her brother's, if not better,' and to be a 'veritable Eton for girls'. Became co-educational in 1999. Notable alumnae: political PR adviser Anji Hunter, model Stella Tennant, Baroness Hazel Byford.

Clifton High School for Girls, Bristol

Was founded in January 1877 (after some local opposition from the nearby – boy’s – Bristol Grammar School). The sixth-form began accepting boys in 2008 and the school became fully coeducational the following year. Famous alumnae: businesswoman Jane Shepherdson, actress Glynis Johns, tennis player Jo Durie.

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