As a data science entrepreneur and an advocate for STEM subjects, I have often been invited into schools to talk to about my own career path, and female success and leadership in general. After speaking to young people on many occasions about their passions and goals, I noticed that girls often struggled to name female role models outside of their immediate family, while their male classmates reeled off sportsmen, politicians and well-known business leaders. Many successful women work across almost every industry, but for some reason, their names are not familiar to the majority of young people, eclipsed by a small group of celebrities who dominate our media. This disparity is one of the reasons that I set up The Female Lead project dedicated to increasing the visibility of female role models.
In 2014, I decided to publish a book and films to showcase the stories of 60 inspirational women with the goal of fostering ambition and self-belief in young women. When choosing our Female Leads, we strove to represent a wide spectrum of talents, ages, and backgrounds, from actor Meryl Streep and director Ava DuVernay to lawyer and politician Christina Lagarde and activist Leymah Gbowee. Each interview is illustrated with original photography by world-renowned photography, Brigitte Lacombe, and a video interview by Marian Lacombe.
As the purpose of The Female Lead has always been to encourage young people, we have worked in conjunction with The Mulberry School in London to produce a teaching resource that brings The Female Lead into the classroom, drawing on the lessons we've learned from the 60 women interviewed for the book and emphasizing the sheer breadth and diversity of their personal stories. The Female Lead book, along with the accompanying teaching materials, will be distributed free to thousands of schools across the UK and US, offering both personal testimonies and practical advice for setting and achieving goals and finding your own path to fulfillment. I hope they can open up more inclusive conversations about ambition in the classroom, so more young people of all genders are inspired to think positively about their future.
As I worked on the book, I noticed something surprising. While the 60 women featured are from a wide range of industries and backgrounds, they never really mentioned 'ambition'. These women are leaders in their professions, breakers of new ground and unafraid of relentless endeavor, but the idea of being 'ambitious' did not resonate with all of them. This unexpected detail inspired us to take a closer look at the qualities, characteristics, and tools that enabled these female leaders on their path. The following five hallmarks were the result: a new roadmap to professional fulfillment, reflecting the diverse paths taken by our 'Female Leads'.
1. Feed Your Passions
Many of the Female Leads interviewed attested to the transformative power of deep and authentic passions and interests, as well as demonstrating a commitment to them over time. From politician Mhairi Black to journalist Katharine Viner, the interviewees all agreed that giving time and energy to your passions is a strong beginning, even if you're not yet sure of the end destination.
2. Stay Curious
The Female Leads were driven by curiosity; they were hungry to expand their horizons and to learn and engage beyond their immediate sphere. Actor Meryl Streep testified to the power of imagination, saying that it 'took me out of my circumstances and enabled me to understand the lives of other people in a way I found thrilling'. All of the interviewees knew the value of continuing to listen and learn, long after leaving school.
3. Dare to be Different
The Female Leads revealed the importance of learning to embrace the ways in which they differed from their peers: standing out might feel uncomfortable, but it can be a brilliant enabler of success. Many of them struggled with exams or were bullied by classmates, but later turned their perceived 'weaknesses' to their advantage. Jo Malone states that the dyslexia that hindered her at school has been her 'best friend' in the business world, helping her to 'think of the less obvious solution'.
4. Ask for Help
The Female Leads gained strength from families, allies, and mentors, building support networks throughout their lives. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, and many of these women broke new ground through successful collaboration. Christine Lagarde recommends that young women 'reach out to other women...ask them for advice, for support'.
5. Find Strength in Setbacks
The Female Leads emphasised how the acceptance of setbacks was a critical part of achieving their goals. Each failure or obstacle became a learning experience which made them stronger and more focused. As producer Yvette Vega says: "Young people think everything has to be perfect...but if you fall down and scrape your knee, you put on a Band-Aid, get up and run faster!".
It's important to note that all of the advice offered by the 60 Female Leads is inclusive and accessible, applicable to any gender and background. While the five hallmarks may seem obvious, I don't think they are known or visible as I reflect on my career. I hope that by sharing our insights via practical classroom resources and providing a broader spectrum of female role models for both girls and boys, we can make success feel more open to all and inspire the next generation.
The Female Lead book launched on 8th February 2017 and is supported by Founding Partner Investec Private Banking. You can learn more about how to support the campaign and nominate a school of your choice to receive a copy of the book on The Female Lead website.