Careers advice: Lessons from top female role-models

Written by: Edwina Dunn | Published:
Career role-models: The Female Lead project has produced resources for schools and a new book to help inspire young women

Lessons in ambition – what did Edwina Dunn learn from interviewing 60 of the world’s most accomplished women? She explains more about The Female Lead project and its free education resources

As a data science entrepreneur and an advocate for STEM subjects, I am invited into schools to talk about my own career path and leadership in general.

After interviewing young people about their passions and goals, we observed that girls frequently struggled to name female role-models outside of their immediate family, while their male classmates reeled off sportsmen, politicians and well-known business leaders, revealing a wide range of interests from an early age.

What’s more, this pattern is mirrored online: a 2016 study of social media stars, conducted for The Female Lead campaign by consumer insights company, Starcount, revealed that 95 per cent of the most popular women on social media span fashion and celebrity only, while male influencers represent far greater professional diversity.

Many successful women work across almost every industry, but for some reason their names are not familiar to the majority of young people, eclipsed by a small group of celebrities who dominate our media.

This disparity is one of the reasons that I set up The Female Lead project dedicated to increasing the visibility of female role-models.

In 2014, I decided to publish a book and films to showcase the stories of 60 inspirational women with the goal of fostering ambition and self-belief in young women.

When choosing our Female Leads, we strove to represent a wide spectrum of talents, ages and backgrounds, from actor Meryl Streep and director Ava DuVernay, to lawyer and politician Christina Lagarde and activist Leymah Gbowee.

The sheer breadth and diversity of these women is remarkable to me; they are politicians and artists, journalists and teachers, engineers and campaigners, fire-fighters and film stars. Each interview is illustrated with original photography by world-renowned photographer, Brigitte Lacombe, and a video interview by Marian Lacombe.

As the purpose of The Female Lead has always been to encourage young people, we have also produced teaching resources that bring The Female Lead into the classroom, drawing on the lessons we have learned from the 60 women interviewed and emphasising the variety of their personal and professional stories.

These have been created in partnership with a girls’ comprehensive school, The Mulberry School, based in east London. Headteacher Vanessa Ogden, a National Leader in Education, has testified to the impact that positive role-models have on the lives of young people – especially when those role-models reflect a range of aspirations, experiences and backgrounds.

Strong role-models encourage young people to strive for success, and instil confidence that they can achieve their goals. It is this effect that we hope to amplify with The Female Lead project.

The Female Lead book, along with the accompanying documentary series and teaching pack, will be distributed free to thousands of schools across the UK and US.

Harnessing the insight from the 60 interviews, these materials offer both personal testimonies and practical advice for setting and achieving goals, and your own path to fulfilment. I hope they can open up more inclusive conversations about ambition in the classroom, so more young people of all genders are inspired to think positively about their future.

As I worked on the book, I noticed something surprising. While the 60 amazing women featured are from a wide range of industries and backgrounds, they never really mentioned “ambition”.

These women are leaders in their professions, breakers of new ground and innovators unafraid of relentless endeavour.

These women are passionate, dedicated, curious, hard-working and often inspired to help others and change the world for the better, but the idea of being “ambitious” did not resonate with all of them. This unexpected detail inspired us to take a closer look at the qualities, characteristics and tools that enabled these female leaders on their path. The following five hallmarks were the result: a new roadmap to professional fulfilment, reflecting the diverse paths taken by our Female Leads.

Feed your passions

Many of the Female Leads interviewed attested to the transformative power of deep and authentic passions and interests, as well as demonstrating a commitment to them over time. Model, entrepreneur and coding advocate Karlie Kloss told us that having a strong passion for something “enables you to be more focused and enjoy every other aspect of your life”, while diplomat Samantha Power advised that young people should “develop their interests” rather than trying to follow a prescribed career path. From politician Mhairi Black to journalist Katharine Viner, the interviewees all agreed that giving time and energy to your passions is a strong beginning, even if you’re not yet sure of the end destination.

Stay curious

The Female Leads were driven by curiosity; they were hungry to expand their horizons, and to learn and engage beyond their immediate sphere. Actor Meryl Streep testified to the power of imagination, saying that it “took me out of my circumstances and enabled me to understand the lives of other people in a way I found thrilling”. Artist Aowen Jin agreed, telling us that “I am more interested in exploring and experiencing other people’s lives, and by reflecting on them I can understand humanity better”. All of the interviewees knew the value of continuing to listen and learn, long after leaving school.

Dare to be different

The Female Leads revealed the importance of learning to embrace the ways in which they differed from their peers: standing out might feel uncomfortable, but it can be a brilliant enabler of success. Many of them struggled with exams or were bullied by classmates, but later turned their perceived “weaknesses” to their advantage. Jo Malone states that the dyslexia that hindered her at school has been her “best friend” in the business world, helping her to “think of the less obvious solution”, while Tina Brown feels that her rebellious youth made her a better journalist in later life, as she was unafraid to “question everything and push boundaries”.

Ask for help

The Female Leads gained strength from families, allies and mentors, building support networks throughout their lives. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, and many of these women broke new ground through successful collaboration. Christine Lagarde recommends that young women “reach out to other women ... ask them for advice, for support”. In fact, a remarkable number of the Female Leads credit female family members and mentors with giving them the confidence to succeed, with their mothers being acknowledged particularly often.

Find strength in setbacks

The Female Leads emphasised how the acceptance of setbacks was a critical part of achieving their goals. Each failure or obstacle became a learning experience which made them stronger and more focused. Many of the 60 women interviewed expressed frustration with the ways in which society teaches young people – and girls in particular – to view failure as a negative experience. “It’s okay to make mistakes,” says producer Yvette Vega. “Young people think everything has to be perfect ... but if you fall down and scrape your knee, you put on a band-aid, get up and run faster!” Ava DuVernay agrees: “So often I hear people saying ‘How do I get started, how do I do this?’. You just start. It won’t be perfect ... but you’re on your way.”


It’s important to note that all of the advice offered by the 60 Female Leads is inclusive and accessible, applicable to any gender and background.

While the five hallmarks may seem obvious, I don’t think they are known or visible as I reflect on my career.

I hope that by sharing our insights via practical classroom resources and providing a broader spectrum of female role-models for both girls and boys, we can make success feel more open to all and inspire the next generation.


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