It is important not to let the headline comment – “girls need to plan for motherhood” – override the much more nuanced point that Durham was making; she was not saying that it is an either/or choice. Rather, she suggested that if women do decide to take one route as opposed to both that this is an equally acceptable choice and a much less visited discussion than the simple assumption that, today, every girl wants everything and indeed can have everything.
Her second valid point that has additionally gotten lost is that it is sensible to talk to girls about fertility during sex and relationships education lessons so that they are aware of simple biological facts which will inevitably impact on their lives and careers at a later date.
We recently hosted the GSA Girl Power: Women in Bio-Technology and Engineering Conference, which was attended by more than 250 girls from 13 state and independent schools across the Eastern region. One of the most profound moments of the day came after the morning’s keynote presentations; an attendee asked the panel how they juggled being a mother and a successful career woman.
The speakers at the event were all women of extraordinary talent and dedication working at the top of their fields, including solar power conversion scientist Mary Archer; the majority were mothers too. The resounding consensus from the speakers was that it is doable. From flexible working hours to sharing childcare with their partners, the women were adamant in their belief that they can be excellent parents as well as being leading scientists.
In 2014 I was privileged to visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) where I was inspired to hear that women who work for the FCO are given up to seven years out of work for maternity leave and childcare with a promise that they will have job security at the same grade when they return. To hear that women are being recognised for their important roles in today’s society and rewarded with benefits relating to motherhood was both powerful and encouraging.
Durham claimed that she is not a feminist but believes that there is a glass ceiling and if we tell our female students otherwise, we are misleading them. Like Durham, I am under no misconception that glass ceilings do still exist, in certain professions more than others: I attended a corporate event at Barclays HQ where this was very much a talking point.
We need to be realistic and upfront in our conversations with girls, and should do our utmost to ensure that the women of the future know that they have choices in all they do and that it is not an “either/or” decision when it comes to having a career and being a mother. We can manage both, as our impressive female scientists have proven, but other equally valid paths exist; that is to make a decision in favour of one or the other.
I would encourage employers to learn from organisations like the FCO, which recognises the important roles its female employees play and offers a flexible maternity package. Flexibility exists: women can have, and should claim it all – but what feels right at one life stage might be very different at another and sometimes forward planning and awareness will allow for greater flexibility and options in the long run.
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Charlotte Avery is headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge, the only all-girls’ school in the city.
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