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The late 1990s in the UK saw girls start to out-perform boys in national exams and to enter university in greater numbers than boys. These same girls will now be in their 30s, but one would have to look hard to find them in government, on executive boards or in many other leadership roles. This under-representation of women in decision-making is not just an issue for the UK – it is identified as of pressing national and international significance identified by the European Commission, the OECD and the World Economic Foundation.
Issues faced by women leaders have come into sharp focus in the current political situation. These include the rise of public misogyny as witnessed in the Donald Trump’s presidential, the vilification of women politicians online in the UK; the online abuse suffered by women campaigners, and sexist representations of political leaders in the mainstream media.
Concerns about gender and leadership have emerged in popular realms – for example the global success of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In guide to corporate success, and the public outcry about the United Nations’ nomination of the cartoon figure of Wonder Woman as an ambassador for women’s empowerment. These concerns are now extending from adult women to girlhood – most prominently, Sandberg has expanded the ‘Lean In’ project to address girls, their carers, and educators through a global campaign entitled ‘Ban Bossy’. This campaign mobilises celebrities and provides guidance to encourage girls to overcome negative socialisation with regard to female leadership. At the same time in the UK, Edwina Dunn’s The Female Lead project has produced a glossy book of 60 ‘amazing women from around the world’ pitched at schools with the aim of providing role models for girls. Whether in celebrity endorsed campaigns, or in the framing of the 2016 American election as the pivotal moment in which Hillary Clinton would teach ‘every little girl who dreams big [that they] can be anything [they] want—even president’, celebrities are prominent in (and propagators of) discourses around potential future girl leaders and how to shape them.
It could be argued that such projects as Dunn’s and Sandberg’s are long overdue – a recent study for the World Association of Girls Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) suggests that girls struggle to name female leaders they admire beyond a handful, and that they are far more likely to identify men as successful leaders. Access to role models has been described as key to the development of girls’ leadership aspirations. However, the holding up of celebrity and highly visible role models as the answer to overcoming barriers to leadership for girls is problematic.
Young people are consistently instructed that they should not base their aspirations around celebrities. Even when celebrity role models are offered to them, the ways in which girls are expected to admire such models is something of a minefield – for example, they can be exhorted to admire Beyoncé’s financial acumen but deplore her sexualised marketing – or to admire Emma Watson for speaking out but not for dressing up. Then there’s the issue of being a visible woman at all – girls are very aware of the ways in which women in the public eye are vilified daily, not for the quality of their work, but for their appearance and their transgressions of traditionally feminine roles and behaviours. Indeed, many girls already have experience of gendered bullying via social media themselves. Many aspirational discourses aimed at young women recognise inequalities but exhort girls to believe in themselves and to work hard, offering the promise that they can achieve their goals with sufficient commitment. However, as some girls learn that this is not necessarily the case, there are few alternative explanations for failure than individual inadequacy.
Michele Paule and Hannah Yelin at Oxford Brookes are embarking on a research project looking more closely at girls’ relationship with leadership figures, and their imaginings, experiences and aspirations relating to ‘being in charge’.
As well as leading the WAGGGS Europe action research project addressing gendered barriers to leadership in Scotland and The Netherlands (2014-16), Michele has been holding workshops with girls in secondary schools looking at leadership. Both these endeavours reveal patterns that warrant further investigation. These include: • A lack of experience of ‘being in charge’ outside the home unless they belong to an organisation such as the WAGGGS. In schools, it is often only those deemed academically able that get opportunities to take on decision making roles, e.g. in group work; • A lack of direct experience of women leaders as girls grow up. Younger girls will nominate their teachers, mothers and guiders as good leaders. As they grow older, nominations are increasingly drawn from media worlds where men are represented more often and more positively; • The perceived need to be ‘super-feminine’ in order to compensate for being powerful in the women they identify as role models.
Hannah’s research into celebrity culture explores ways in which it works to ‘police’ acceptable femininity. Whilst celebrities may be held up as inspiring role models, the discourses that surround them often work to limit the space available to women in the public eye.
This new project seeks to trouble ideas of the role model, and to extend consideration into girlhood of the (gendered) complexities and limitations inherent in popular ideas of leadership. It aims to understand what girls apprehend female leadership to mean in their experiences and local contexts, and also in global contexts of transnational celebrity and the popular discourses of leadership they offer.
To find out more contact Michele Paule