Rushi Millns of Heathfield School, discusses how we overcome bias and give girls the confidence to speak up and aim for the top in public life

Since 1918 when women were granted a somewhat limited power to vote, the majority of policy and law has continued to be written by men and naturally reflects their bias. To level the playing field and ensure fair representation in politics and the working world, we need to give girls the tools to voice their opinions and break the bias.

Gender bias starts young – girls are told to sit nicely and behave while boys are encouraged to be noisy and boisterous. This has parallels in the adult world too; vocal women are labelled ‘bossy’ or ‘shrill’, whereas vocal men are just ‘determined to get their point across’.

The more opportunity, support and guidance young women have to share their ideas, the more expert they will become in the future – whether that’s holding discussions in departmental meetings, representing an organisation or speaking in Parliament. Alongside the necessary qualifications, communication skills and what the individual brings to the job, are the essentials for success.

At Heathfield we recognise the importance of building confidence, communication skills and an open-minded approach to new experiences. We want our students to be critical thinkers who can discuss and view issues from different perspectives. To ensure they are informed about politics and current issues, our Careers and Outreach department hosts various programmes to promote discussion, debate and public speaking.

Heathfield School on encouraging girl power
Rushi Millns is Director of Careers and Outreach at Heathfield School, Ascot

Speaker’s Corner is an opportunity for our students to speak publicly about a topic they feel passionate about for two minutes without questions, sharing their opinion and declaiming about it – rather like Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. The topic that resonates most with the students is then used for our School Debate in the Summer Term, when opinions and ideas are challenged and debated.

Later in the Michaelmas Term, in celebration of Parliament Week, we host an annual ‘Question Time’ with a student panel taking topical questions from the audience, which includes local politicians from the three main political parties. We also have a Speaker Programme to introduce new ideas and broaden experiences for our students as they learn about the world of work. Professionals are invited to come and speak about their work and experience, and the students start to develop their networking skills.

“The more opportunity, support and guidance young women have to share their ideas, the more expert they will become in the future”

We still need to overcome the barriers that prevent girls and women from speaking out or seeing themselves in top jobs in the worlds of work and government – and that was the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, with the hashtag #breakthebias. Of course, to do that we need to be sure we are building the skills, knowledge and understanding that young people need to make informed decisions.

We need our young people to think critically and raise their voices, so their thoughts and opinions are heard. We must also teach them to first look at their own assumptions, bring the bias to the fore and question it – to achieve equality there can be no automatic assumptions.

Heathfield School

Further reading: Southbank International on the power of performing arts