You can’t be what you can’t see

Written by: Edwina Dunn | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There are now more girls than boys taking science A levels but we cannot let our on-going focus on providing positive career role models for young women slip, says Edwina Dunn

The number of girls taking science A levels in the UK overtook boys for the first time ever this year (JCQ, 2019).

The news was a significant result, particularly for anyone involved in the recent push to encourage girls into STEM subjects. I was one of those people, working on campaigns to change the perception of science from a geeky boys’ subject to a pathway into exciting jobs of the future.

As chair of Your Life, a government-backed campaign to shift those pre-conceptions, my goal was to double the uptake of maths and physics A level, with a particular focus on girls. At the same time I also founded The Female Lead – an educational charity showcasing inspirational women’s stories and lesser-known careers, especially those in STEM, in order to inspire the next generation of young women.

Both of these campaigns are underpinned by one central idea – you can’t be what you can’t see.

When it comes to young people’s ambition, visibility is everything. Simply knowing about a job title is not enough – they need to meet the real people behind the work, and see examples they can identify with.

Without diverse role models the ambitions of young people are limited, often leaving them blinkered and despondent. When they see faces they recognise, performing seemingly out-of-reach roles, the effect can be transformational.

Studies have shown that exposure to positive role models increase women’s willingness to compete, reduce gender stereotypes and lead to higher self-confidence (CMI, 2014).

The majority of women believe that having a role model helps raise aspirations, but 55 per cent say that there are not enough role models to choose from in the media (Meier et al, 2018).

When the news broke about the momentous change in science A level up-take among girls, one explanation given for the trend was greater exposure to women in science through changes to the curriculum.

Jill Duffy, chief executive of exam board OCR, was vocal about her belief that revision of science syllabuses to highlight the work of notable female scientists in history had been instrumental in this change.

The science A level results are a hugely positive step for anyone interested in the future of young women. But there is still much work to be done for true gender parity across education and all fields of work.

Consider that even now only 29 per cent of FTSE 100 board positions are held by women and less than seven per cent of world leaders are female. Staggeringly, 90 per cent of women still work for companies that pay them less than men.

And yet, for more than 30 years, women have earned more Bachelor’s degrees than men.

I believe that one simple way that we can change women’s futures is by introducing girls to positive and diverse role models, earlier in their lives, before key decisions about their futures are made.

While we have made some encouraging first steps, we recognise the need to do more.

That is why The Female Lead is launching our new Schools Societies across the UK. These will be extra-curricular and student-led, with weekly meetings for members that will not feel like lessons. The programme offers guidance on leadership, confidence, career options and varied stories of female achievement. The free resources will cover financial empowerment, portrayal of women in media, resilience and ambition.

Our hope is that the programme will develop greater self-belief in girls and in early testing we have already seen some positive results. We surveyed the girls who took part in our pilot project and at the end of the four-week programme, 83 per cent said they felt more optimistic about their future careers and 75 per cent felt more confident about putting themselves forward as leaders.

While the programme will nurture future leaders, it is not only focused on encouraging high-growth career options or trail-blazing entrepreneurs. We want to demonstrate all of the ways to find success and fulfilment as a woman, in life and work.

Learning about women’s careers in isolation is not enough to provide the role models that girls need – we will cover how these women deal with the challenges that are uniquely female, how they have made their home lives work, and pursued their passions outside of work.

All of this information is vital to unlocking the belief inside girls that they can reach for that bigger job, that they can break free of the sometimes limiting expectations set by their families, peers or communities.

Our Schools Societies are an extension of the Female Lead book, published two years ago, which was distributed free to schools alongside teaching resources. It featured 60 stories of remarkable women, from scientists to fire-fighters, some leading conventional lives and some alternative. The stories together show young women that there are myriad ways to live and thrive, but what is vital is to take the lead in your own life.

This message is at the centre of our project and at the centre of our Schools Societies.

Taking the lead in your own life simply means choosing your direction, making decisions about your future. For centuries women have done what they were told, had their choices restricted and their opportunities denied.

Now that we have new prospects and freedoms, I want girls to believe in their own agency and power.

The way we explain this to girls is thus: if you imagine your life as a story, you are the lead character, you can be the person driving that narrative – not your mum or your dad, not your best friend, not your boyfriend. It is your story and you can decide where it goes.

  • Edwina Dunn is the founder of The Female Lead, a charity that works to highlight the breadth of female achievement in order to inspire future generations. For details of The Female Lead’s Society Programme, contact them via the website at

Further information


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin