GDST is serious about female leadership, CEO tells sixth formers

p1090592Being in an all girls Sixth Form is empowering and will help students learn leadership and how to deal with a world that is volatile, increasingly uncertain, complex and ambiguous, according to the new CEO of the Girls’ Day School Trust.

Cheryl Giovannoni was speaking to both current and prospective students and their parents at the recent Sydenham High Sixth Form Open Evening, following presentations from new Head of Sixth Form, Rebecca Parrish, and sixth formers.

Cheryl, who joined the Trust in September from WPP where she headed up international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, affirmed that the GDST is “serious about female leadership” with the central belief that “if you can see it you can be it“,  This is achievable in a GDST sixth form because  “You will be encouraged to be yourself, to be an individual, to go against the grain when you need to, and not to be frightened to stand out from the crowd.”

To begin with she outlined how, after growing up as one of four daughters in South Africa, she rejected a stereotyped future of ‘bagging a rich husband’ to take up a job as a secretary at multinational advertising agency Ogilvy. Twenty-five years, and several other companies, later, she returned to Ogilvy London as its CEO.  The lesson learnt for students is that anything is possible. “No-one should be held back by predetermined paths that others may have considered right for you.”

Cheryl also outlined why she had wanted to join the GDST, in what she tells her own daughters is ‘The Century of Women’ .  She said that the GDST is an organisation “whose mission is to put girls at the heart of everything we do, at a time when it couldn’t be more important to build on the progress women are making in the world. …..where you have so many more choices than ever before, where women are making progress like never before.”

She continued: “At the GDST, we take female leadership seriously. We believe that ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ so the young women in GDST Sixth Forms – like the one here at Sydenham High – take on leadership roles within their school communities. You become role models for younger girls. You also have many opportunities to meet other GDST Sixth Formers, be it at the annual Young Leaders’ Conference or at the Oxbridge conference.”

She also affirmed that no other school or group of schools can match the GDST offer for aspiring sixth formers preparing for the world of work.  She explained that they benefit from access to the GDST’s unique CareerStart programme which offers practical sessions to help with interviews, memory and presentation skills, negotiation, teamwork, enterprise and many of the other skills you need to succeed in life beyond the classroom. There are also links to a range of top employers from banking to the arts who host insight and career introduction days which help students understand the range and complexity of their businesses and the variety of roles on offer as well as prizes and scholarships which are exclusively available for GDST sixth formers.

Cheryl then tackled the question of whether the young women in the Sixth Forms are somehow missing out by not having boys around.  Her answer was an emphatic  ‘no’:-

“Firstly, it’s a school, not a convent. There’s plenty of time to mix with the opposite sex outside school.

“Secondly, a girls-only Sixth Form is not limiting, it’s empowering. When I see the sort of women who have been through GDST Sixth Forms – women like Sydenham alumnae Sandy Powell, the costume designer, Alison Hodge, Professor of Engineering Leadership at Aston University, or the author Evie Wyld, not to mention the alumnae of other GDST schools like Mary Beard, Mary Berry, Emma Bridgewater, Margaret Hodge or Stella Rimington – when I see what they have achieved in so many spheres, it’s clear that their single-sex education hasn’t held them back from making it in the world.

“Thirdly: girls first. ….At the GDST, we put the girls’ interests, happiness and wellbeing first at all times. Why would you want to go to a school that doesn’t?”

She went on to say that a Sixth Form education at Sydenham High will  ” help you cope with a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”  and becoming more so.

“As the nature of education changes and becomes increasingly complex with many ‘known unknowns’…… the one thing you don’t want to be unknown, is you. At a school like Sydenham High every young woman is known as an individual. Staff will know when to challenge you to do better and when to offer support.”

Resilience is, of course, a quality that Sydenham High, along with every GDST school, works very hard to instill in all its students – dealing with setbacks and finding creative and innovative solutions is vital preparation for the world of work and the other challenges life will throw up.

That’s where your time in the Sixth Form at Sydenham High will stand you in good stead; by showing courage and being bold in the face of adversity, having the confidence to know that it is fine to try and fail – to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again.”

As well as the four Cs of a GDST education – Confidence, courage, composure and commitment – there was one further aspect of Sixth Form life that students would benefit from, said Cheryl, and that was friendship.

The young women with whom you share a Sixth Form become the friends and the support networks that will serve you throughout your lives.”

This was born out in a recent survey conducted with students from Years 3 up to 13 across the GDST where the most mentioned words in answer to the question ‘what will you remember when you leave school?’ were friends and friendship.

Cheryl went on to say there is no other Sixth Form offer that sets women up better for university and the world of work. As alumnae of a GDST school, she explained, sixth formers won’t just have access to the support of their own friends, or of the former students of Sydenham High but also to all 70,000 members of the GDST Alumnae Network who can provide mentoring, work experience, careers advice and so much more.

She concluded her speech with a quote from actress Emma Watson at the launch of the HeForShe campaign at the UN two years ago:  The Harry Potter star said:  ‘…the best thing about the last two years has been… finding people … that … I have something in common with … a community of artists, spiritual teachers, dreamers, thinkers, doers, who work together and support each other. For the first time in my life, I found my sisterhood; a brotherhood— however you want to describe it – I found my tribe.’

For Cheryl, students need look no further to experience the same feeling:  “As a GDST Sixth Former, and after that, a GDST alumna, you don’t need to find your tribe. You already have one.”