GSA Annual Conference 2023 – President’s Address

GSA Annual Conference 2023 – President’s Address

20 November 2023

Hello and welcome to GSA’s 2023 Annual Conference, Illuminating Lives | Inspiring Futures.

I’m thrilled to be Girls’ Schools Association President this year, and if we haven’t yet met, I’m Marina Gardiner Legge.

I’m looking forward to speaking with you all over the next few days. I can see many familiar faces here, and am looking forward to meeting our new Heads too.

I promise I will come to my speech shortly but before I do, I have some important thanks and welcomes: thanks to GSA for creating this spectacular annual event that brings us all together, to our sponsors Schoolblazer, easy4U, and SchoolsMobile – without whom none of this would be possible, and welcome to our new Heads and press delegation.

I’m here because a teacher inspired me, and demonstrated to me that I could do, could be, so much more than I thought. I am the first woman in my family to go to university. I was lucky enough to have three children, lived, worked and created businesses in Miami, Paris and Hong Kong. I have trained as a riding teacher, and at the age of 34 retrained completely at Hong Kong University as an English teacher abroad, who then walked into a boys’ only state school in London and worked up to Senior Leadership before transferring over to the Independent Sector. I do not believe that I am anything special – there are huge amounts of people who do similar – and more – every day, but what I do believe is that the resilience, persistence and the ability to adapt and meet challenges head on is due in large part to the confidence and self-belief which attending a girls’ school gave me and which is key to creating a better future for the world.

Initially, girls’ schools were born because of the recognition that girls needed a different education to boys because the demands and lives that they would lead would have different challenges to those of men, and while those challenges and expectations for girls have evolved, it is my key hypothesis that that the need for a tailored education for girls is even more urgent today.

That girls’ schools matter even more in the modern world than ever before.

The future our girls face is ever more challenging. The education, courage, strength and self-purpose that we provide through girls’ education is absolutely vital to addressing the challenges in society, and the world. It has never been so important, so urgent, to fight for the rights of girls worldwide – and educating girls in girls only schools – is central to that mission.

The world is at an inflexion point, volatile and challenging. A world where having reasoned conversations has become more difficult, fuelled in my view by social media, as polarised opinions leave no room for nuance and finesse, but attract the extreme and the bitesize.

The rights of women are still not where we want them to be.

Roe versus Wade in America, as well as the victims of the conflicts that we see in the Middle East, in the Ukraine/Russia conflict, and most recently in the Israel-Hamas conflict, are still predominantly women.

The Gender pay gap as reported by the United Nations is still 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

The attack on women’s rights in countries as diverse as America, Iran and France demonstrate that there is still much work to be done to empower the rights of women as part of our worldwide infrastructure.

Women fought for the right to have a career as well as to have children; they wanted nothing more than choice. But that choice is hampered by a multitude of barriers that only women face:

  • The motherhood penalty – in the workplace, this impacts on aspects of women’s careers in pay, promotion and the ability to gain good quality employment.
  • Researchers have also studied the motherhood pay gap which compares salaries between working mothers, women without children and working fathers. It has been suggested that the motherhood penalty makes up 80% of the gender pay gap.
  • Women still bear the brunt of household duties and childcare. Dubbed ‘the second shift’ by sociologists Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung; these are the life laundry duties that follow the workday. The ONS reports that women carry out an average of 60% more unpaid work than men, double the proportion when it comes to cooking, childcare and housework.
  • The cost (and availability) of childcare affects women’s ability to stay in the workplace, with many priced out of the job market. One of the reasons why there is a teaching crisis is because of this discrepancy and the financial trap that women find themselves in.
  • About a quarter of a million mothers with young children have left their jobs because of difficulties with balancing work and childcare, according to a report by The Fawcett Society.

But workplaces for women are not only unequal – it’s not uncommon that a lack of female representation at the table actively excludes gender related insights and expertise – they can also be unpleasant and toxic.

As Heads of Girls’ only schools we are focussed on these issues and they are an absolute priority for us. We are at the sharp end of our girls’ experiences, and we are here to help them successfully navigate the world. This is why we empower our young women so that they can confidently speak up, speak out and speak loud by holding up a mirror to the world, to challenge it and help transform it to how it should be, and we do that every minute of every day with the role models we choose, our alumnae, our speakers and our curriculum.


Misogyny is still rife – now – here in 2023. In workplaces and in society – even in organisations that we put our trust in to protect and serve us.

  • Lady Casey’s landmark report was damning of the Metropolitan police, finding it to be institutionally misogynist. The 363-page report details stories of sexual assaults with 12% of women in the Met saying they has been harassed or attacked at work, and one third experiencing sexism, as one example.
  • The Covid Enquiry recently revealed shocking and ‘violent and misogynistic language’ being used about former civil servant Helen McNamara in WhatsApp messages from Dominic Cummings unchallenged by the then Prime Minister. MacNamara served as Deputy Cabinet Secretary, and was one of the highest-ranking female officials and she has experienced this at the very highest level. She said: “It is just miles away from what is right or proper or decent.”
  • In meetings other female civil servants were spoken over or ignored.
  • McNamara has gone on to highlight the consequences of a lack of gender diversity among decision makers, and that shutting women out of decision making not only hampered the UK Covid response but also had a directly negative effect on women’s lives – such as the startling lack of provision for domestic abuse victims during the first lockdown, unnecessarily restrictive rules around pregnancy care and childbirth and concerns about PPE not fitting and endangering female frontline staff because it had not been designed with women’s bodies in mind (at all).
  • She is an example of a confident woman bravely having difficult conversations to shine a light on the facts, to let the light in.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But then, if women are brave enough to call out misogyny or harassment, or worse, they have little to no chance of the perpetrator being charged, and if they are, of them being found guilty. With crushingly low conviction rates.

This just isn’t good enough.

So how are we part of the solution?

In our schools, and as school leaders, we seek to unleash girls and their full brilliance to go out, confidently, into the world to challenge bias and continue to be the change. Our schools put girls first, as places designed for them.

Girls’ schools are vital spaces catalysing positive societal change and are drivers for a more inclusive society. Our schools and pupils are, and always have been, firebrands and trailblazing campaigners. And we at GSA, in the same footsteps as our founders, continue to shine a light on all that we do in their best interests.

It’s well understood that having a range of people’s experiences in work is beneficial; there is a huge body of evidence citing the value of a diverse workforce, of having different viewpoints at the table; it prevents groupthink and leads to better results and outcomes. It’s also more human.

We can go further to look see the benefits of gender fair representation. In a landmark study on collective intelligence, Williams Woolley found that the ability of groups to solve problems strongly correlated with the number of females in a group. The innate talents and skills of women and girls are not, and have never been, in question. There is an alchemy in women’s participation in life.

In our schools we are always striving to create the ideal environments to bring out the best in our young women. We have a deep cumulative expertise stretching back hundreds of years (nearly 150 for GSA), and our unique collective understanding cannot be underestimated. Every single pupil in our schools is an example of female leadership, of female empowerment for every other pupil. In a girls’ school, every pupil has the potential and support to be or do whatever she aspires to be. Women need to see it to be it and with every single one of our alumnae, no matter the path she has taken, they reinforce that women can do anything, can be anything, and can take on anything.

And this must be protected at all costs especially in a world that has been designed in the majority by men, with men in mind.

As Caroline Criado Perez so excellently reveals in her book, if you’ve noticed your phone is too big for your hand, your doctor prescribes a drug that’s wrong for your body; and you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in a car accident you’re probably a woman, because so far everything from government policy and medical research to tech and the media has largely been built for and by men, systematically ignoring half the population. And we are lucky to welcome Mary Ann Sieghart today who has and will continue to shine lights into areas where women are still devalued and silenced.

Our schools are the antidote to this. They do the opposite. They are designed for girls; they are created to make women and girls visible and to give them the confidence to know that they will be heard. They illuminate lives and inspire futures, and charge the world with women able to design a world with them firmly making their mark in it.

We are at the vanguard of understanding girls’ lives and experiences and that extends to our future dreaming for them, always keenly looking at what is next for them in their futures, whether it’s flexible work or harnessing the power of AI and carefully supporting their ambitions and interests by looking at the skills they need to hone, and revel in the lives they choose to make for themselves.

What skills do our girls need for their future careers?

Luckily, rather than hearing just my thoughts the Skills Imperative 2035 – a study by the NFER has identified the ‘essential employment skills’ as being:

1) communication
2) collaboration
3) problem-solving
4) organising, planning & prioritising work
5) creative thinking and
6) ‘information literacy’ (skills related to gathering, processing, and using information)

These are, of course, important skills and any great school will be able to provide evidence that these skills are being taught and used by their pupils, but this isn’t about some distant future; that ‘future’ is here and now.

Let’s take my own daughters as an example here. I have three daughters – two in Australia and one in Canada. They came over for the middle daughter’s wedding, and having used up their leave, they were working remotely. Emma was working and checking in for a few hours a day for meetings with colleagues across the world from India to Brazil working on a joint project creating an app across different time zones. Charlotte was getting up at 5am and checking in with the office in Australia until they went home at 7am her time, and then continued to work remotely on projects until 2pm our time, clocking in her time in 15-minute chunks. We’re not talking about jobs that are being created in 2035; they are here now, and students who left our schools over 9 years ago, are applying the skills and aptitudes that they learnt then, in school, to seize these brilliant new opportunities to work differently.

Our world needs much more than a list of employability skills. It desperately needs the voices and presence of women in every sphere. We do not need more people who are happy with the status quo – on the contrary, we need people who will have the agency, efficacy, money, influence and power, to challenge, and change it. We need the power of the activist – the modern suffragette. And let me be very clear here: this is not about just campaigning for ourselves, but holding the ladder for all that are disenfranchised. It’s about giving young women the power and self-belief to know that their voices will be heard for the benefit of everyone.

Our girls, our leaders of the future, need so much more than this list of skills. They need confidence and entrepreneurial skills – to understand how to regulate and be their own boss. They need to know how to command a room, to garner influence, to press the buttons of power. They need to understand how to speak up, to speak out, and what to do when the world isn’t ready to hear you – the power of persistence and resilience and that inner sense of determination and moral courage to continue knocking on the door even when it is closed to you – or appears to be.

In my role at GSA, I was interviewed by a local TV reporter about the power of girls’ schools to talk about the importance of grit and determination for girls – to keep knocking on doors for them to be opened to young women in work – she then told me her story of how she got into radio. At the age of 16, she sent an email every week for a year to the editor of the station – every day for a year – asking for a job. After the year, the Editor invited her in and talked to her about the best way forward for her, what courses to do, and how to gain the experience which would set her on her dream path.

That, in a nutshell, is what is needed in our chaotic difficult world: self-belief, determination and resilience.

It’s a new world – where empathy, adaptability and persistence pays off, where students who are positive challengers and disruptors if you will, who do not accept the status quo, hold promise, power and sway.

The world needs young women who believe in their own efficacy and agency, who can demonstrate tenacity, who won’t take no for an answer but challenge with resilience and determination until organisations do what is right, rather than what is easy. We need activist girls and campaigning women.

Let me take Julia in my school who in Year 7 decided that she wanted to lead the Amnesty International club and now leads it at the tender age of 12, writing letters to organisations across the world, or Lucinda who leads a climate change protest every Friday in school and every month in our local town centre.

And this isn’t just about university, or future work: the needs of girls are different to boys, and it’s important that the system that cultivates and cares for them has their best interests at heart. Girls’ schools educate our students for life – not just work, not just three years at university – and always have done. That is why they are so special. Statistics indicate that the Year 8s in our schools – 13-year-olds – will live for over 90 years. Much of that will include work, but research has shown current students in schools don’t want the same linear future as their parents. As these are women that we are talking about, their lives will be universally full and we must help our students to navigate, steer and captain their lives; women who may be lucky enough to have children, to be recognised by the Nobel prize, to captain space craft, to run countries, to author lifesaving research and treatments, women who will also go through many different hormonal stages ranging from puberty to menopause, women who may be the main carers for children and elderly parents, women at the centre of their communities and women holding the ladder for those who do not have the advantages they do – outward looking and facing. Skills are great, but they are not enough for a fulfilling and meaningful life; confidence and self-belief are vital here. And to do that, you need to have confidence – and that is at the heart of the girls’ school experience.

Our young women have life ambition and that’s to be encouraged, and everyone here in this room understands the impact an excellent and curated education has had on their girls in their schools. We know every girl in our schools. Education is personal, it’s about igniting every girl’s curiosity and helping her get to know herself, and what she wants. So she can persist at life, live a meaningful life, and enact positive change for those around her. As the world and other young women see more girls confidently living their lives in all parts of society, the more will come to join them and rightfully take their place alongside them.

Girls’ schools have always recognised the duality of women’s lives and prepared them for the twin threads of lives intersecting with careers. That is our essence.

Sometimes we face the challenge that to prepare our girls for the ‘real world’ we must put them into that world immediately – and that just isn’t correct. Let me use a metaphor: you have a precious seed that you have cared for, watered, fed and protected from every draught and aphid. You care for it, and even make sure the ground is moist, warm and perfected just for that seed. You place it into a greenhouse and pot it up, where it gently warms itself in the sun’s rays and begins to understand the power of rain when you put it out on some days but you pack the pot in winter or even take it in under your roof in the worst frosts so that when you finally plant it out in Autumn it is ready for the blasts of winter and the strong heat of summer. Fully hardy.

To refer to our students they too know who they are, have been exposed to threads of the world outside, and understand how to manage the difficult times as well as the joys of friendship and collaboration. Girls’ schools are places where girls are able to explore real world opportunities and make their impact on the world.

In my school, students organise conferences for hundreds of pupils both internationally and nationally. They raise money for issues that concern them, they galvanise and influence, and harness structures around them whether material or human to make real change in the world – not just putting a heart to a cause on social media. Tilly, Katharina and Alice, who presented to NASA their drone designed to stop space debris from hitting satellites, saving thousands of pounds at the age of 16. And every one of you in your schools will have more examples. These are women whose voices are empowered to go out and change the world. This is the magic of a girls’ school environment.

Research demonstrates time and time again that girls do more, take more science subjects, grab hold of more opportunities, have more resilience, don’t drop sport, take more science, coding, tech and mathematics in a girls’ only school.

GSA’s own growing body of research consistently proves the benefits of our schools: the Girl’s Academic Attainment Report shows that girls in girls’ schools consistently outperform their peers academically; the Understanding the Experience of Girls from Disadvantaged Backgrounds and Girls with SEND in Single-Sex Schools reports provide important data that demonstrates that girls in girls’ schools on average have higher levels of wellbeing, metacognition, self-efficacy and motivation than their co-ed counterparts and reveals ground-breaking information on the experience of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and girls with SEND, as examples, and tomorrow we share the results of GSA’s UK Report into Equality for Girls and Women.

The cause of girls’ education has never been more urgent. Post-pandemic women experienced greater employment loss than men during the pandemic, and according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, gender parity in the labour force stands at 62.9% – this is the lowest level registered since the index was first compiled.

The global pandemic also disproportionately impacted young workers, with less than half of the global youth employment deficit projected to have recovered by the end of October last year.

If only I could sit back now and say that our job is done – on the contrary, we still have so much to do. Just look at something that affects almost every woman – the issue of sexual harassment. According to a study by UN women UK 97% of women between the ages of 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed, and 96% won’t report it because they won’t believe it will change anything. Again, not good enough!

It’s girls like Rosie from my school with her Street Worthy organisation and activist approach to supporting young women harassed on the streets of Oxford, or Soma Sara CEO of Everyone’s Invited alumna of Putney High who are flipping the script and starting to solve the problems women face. Women like these are creating a better society for everyone. If we reconsider the essential employment skills against these pupils’ activities communication, collaboration, problem solving, organising and prioritising work, creative thinking and information literacy, these students are already demonstrating those and making the world better for everyone, not just each other and this at the age of 16. This is happening in our schools – now, today, every day creating women who can face their futures with confidence knowing who they are, what they stand for and what they believe in for the benefit of all. Women with integrity and moral courage who can harness the power of collaboration to effect and change the world around them.

That is why this is just the start, not the end.

We need female voices in every sphere, and every part of our world not for personal advancement, but because it will make the lives of every person in our world better, just as we need all voices as that diversity makes the world richer.

Girls’ schools are part of the solution: look at what we’ve done for STEM. We know that girls in girls’ schools are two and a half times more likely to choose STEM subjects than in mixed schools. But did you know that for the gender pay gap in STEM subjects, there is already progress: according to Deloitte, the gap in starting salary of those who have studied STEM and go onto work in the sphere is smaller than in any other subjects studied. This is how the women coming out of our schools are already making a difference.

We must ensure the sustainability of our schools for the good of the futures of all of us.

And that is just the beginning: according to a recent report by Moody which estimated that if there were equal women in the workplace that would add $7 trillion dollars a year to the global economy.

The message is clear, that engaging women, opening women’s opportunities, creates a better world for everyone.

Nowhere could this be more important than in our fractious and fractured world today.

According to a UN report:

‘Women’s participation increases the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years by 20 percent, and by 35 percent the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years.’

And further: ‘Analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War shows that, in cases where women were able to exercise a strong influence on the negotiation process, there was a much higher chance that an agreement would be reached than when women’s groups exercised weak or no influence. In cases of strong influence of women, an agreement was almost always reached.’

A correspondent in Burundi writes:

“Gender must be at the heart of socioeconomic development and peace consolidation. Supporting women in their initiatives is supporting the entire nation.”

The cause and mission of girls’ schools are clearly central to a better and more diverse and equal world.

The education of girls in girls’ schools is not a luxury; it is essential to creating a better world for everyone and in these particularly difficult times it has never been so crucial and vital to support and empower strong girls’ schools for the benefit of all our futures.

As members of Girls’ Schools Association, it is down to us to work together with passion, bravery, and boldness to make sure that everyone understands the vitally important and powerful work we do in our schools to empower young women to enrich the futures of all.

I have used a few examples here but I know that each and every one of you, in your schools, have wonderful examples too. I ask you all to share our stories of the extraordinary young people, our modern suffragettes, in our schools and the work they do and illuminating lives they lead to inspire better futures for everyone.

Thank you!



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