Huffpost UK Universities & Education
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Helen Fraser CBE Headshot

The Secret to Success? Being Prepared to Fail

Posted: Updated:

For me International Women's Day is an opportunity to remember some of the incredible women who have helped us win the rights we enjoy today here in the UK.

A girl living in the 1870s, just 140 years ago when the first GDST schools were set up, could expect no formal education beyond the age of 11. Women did not have the vote, they could not gain professional qualifications and universities did not admit women or allow them to sit public exams.

Progress has been slow but this world is unrecognisable to us today, and it is hard to imagine the courage and passion of countless people that it has taken to change this status quo. Some of their sacrifices are unthinkable to us now - Emily Wilding-Davison, a suffragette and former GDST pupil, died fighting for the vote for women after falling under King George V's horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby.

We may be in a much stronger position than ever before, but the fight is by no means over. Just last week the latest 'Sex and Power' survey showed that the number of women in positions of authority in education, the arts, finance, government, the civil service and judiciary has gone down. The other night, at a Chartered Management Institute dinner, I heard that in the UK 69% of junior managers are women, and earn the same as their male counterparts, but at senior management level only 2% are women and they earn on average £15,000 less.

We cannot just wait for things to change, and it's certainly not going to just happen by continental drift. In the world of education I believe we can help by equipping the girls we teach with the skills and qualities to succeed in whatever career path they choose. There are certain characteristics shared by many girls which mean they are overtaking boys at school in terms of exam results (nearly two thirds of girls achieve five good GCSEs, while only half of boys do so) - a recent US study found that girls in the classroom are more attentive, eager to learn, persistent, independent, flexible and organised. So why are women falling behind men in working life in their 30s, 40s and 50s?

I don't think the answer is just as simple as saying that this is when many women start to have families, although this of course plays a part. Whilst there are certain characteristics that mean girls tend to do well at school, these same attributes mean that they can struggle to get ahead in the workplace. Girls can tend to be less quick to sing their own praises, to bounce back from failure and to take risks, than their male peers - all qualities that are vital for success in the workplace. Their education therefore needs to help them to become resilient, to encourage them to not be afraid to take risks and to be confident.

The fact is that everyone fails at some point in the world of work. Early on in my own career I was working on the publication of a paperback, which had already been printed in hardback. I took all the illustrations out of the original, but forgot to take out the list of illustrations at the front so it was printed with this still in. I felt terrible about this for days, but I learnt over time that the best thing to do when you make a mistake is admit it and move on.

Building confidence can be achieved by doing things over and over again until they are no longer intimidating. The first time I had to do a speech to hundreds of people at a publishing sales conference I felt so nervous that it overshadowed the weeks ahead of the meeting. But I found that having to do it over and over again just took the nerves away.

Over the years I've also learnt that modesty does not pay off in corporate life and it is vital to shout about your achievements if you want them to be recognised by your bosses.

The right school can build and encourage a girl's confidence and the GDST does this by focusing on building girls' resilience and encouraging them to take risks - through sports initiatives, schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, or public speaking competitions. One of our schools, Wimbledon High, even had a 'failure week' last year where distinguished visitors came to talk to the girls about the setbacks they had experienced in their careers, and how they had overcome them.

This is just one part of the journey towards winning greater equality, but I believe that it's an important one. With more and more confident and resilient women entering the world of work, maybe to the women born in another 140 years, our world will be as unrecognisable as the world of the 1870s is to us now.