There was much reported in the media about the absence of women team members in a recent episode of University Challenge – even though St Hugh’s, one of the competing teams, had been established as an all girls’ college in 1886.
It was around this time in 1882 that the school of which I am headmistress, Portsmouth High School, was founded as part of what is now the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) during the rise of the feminist movement sweeping through education.
Our scholars’ board from those early days records the number of bright young women who went on to attend prestigious institutions for their higher education although at that time they were not allowed to matriculate. Women graduates were not recognised by Oxford University until 1920 and by Cambridge University much later in 1947.
We have in our archives a photograph of a young woman dated 1898 who, according to school records, attained top marks, beating all of the men studying alongside her in her mathematics tripos.
But her attainment passed almost unrecognised. Today, Cambridge University retains three all-women colleges whereas the last single-sex college at Oxford University, St Hilda’s, started to admit men in 2008.
Just like the pioneering women who founded the GDST, the women who established those early colleges were revolutionary reformers who were determined that education would bring about the emancipation of women. On the announcement of the establishment of my school, one founding alderman remarked that it was good that a school for girls was to be built as women needed to do more than drape prettily around the drawing room.
In the social media backlash that followed this particular episode of University Challenge, it was men that screamed “GET OVER IT” – written quite literally in capital letters – presumably to indicate they were shouting their dismay.
The “confidence gap” is likely to be at the root of the gender imbalance in University Challenge teams. Women are far less willing to put themselves forward for this type of situation, and I do not think it helpful that Jeremy Paxman dismisses the issues on the grounds that men like quizzing more than women in a way that men like football.
Whilst I’m delighted to see the recent focus on women’s football, if girls grow up in an environment that promotes soccer as something boys do, then it isn’t surprising women don’t always have an interest in the game.
Lack of confidence in women explains the old adage that women won’t put themselves forward for a job if they don’t match exactly the criteria whereas men will consider themselves the ideal candidate if they have accomplished only half of the job description.
One of my extremely capable young alumna said she was often asked, when at a leading university, how she had the courage to ask a question of an eminent professor in a packed lecture theatre. Her reply was simply that, as she attended a girls’ school, she never thought she couldn’t.
While women are in greater number at Oxford University, they are still less likely to receive first class degrees, with the greatest gender disparity in STEM subjects. There is much evidence to show that girls educated in an all-female environment never view subjects or co-curricular activities as male or female.
In a single-sex school we never suffer a gender imbalance in anything we undertake: girls play football and study science and they also enjoy cooking, netball and the arts. They are not put off any area of study and they have recognisable role models amongst the staff.
Our female physics teacher entertained the older girls on Monday with a lecture, as part of our academic lecture series, on space weather and no one thought it unusual that her doctorate specialism is in astrophysics.
Beyond the classroom, society does not help women gain the confidence they need to be on equal terms with men. In some industries, the pay differential between female and male colleagues employed in similar roles is shocking. This is generally not a problem faced in teaching. However, many former all-boys schools which turned co-educational decades ago still have woefully poor numbers of females occupying management positions. Even if they have a token woman on their senior leadership team, that woman is often the pastoral deputy or holds an administrative role such as director of marketing.
In my single-sex school there are almost equal numbers of men and women holding key senior roles. Teaching is a profession that attracts more women than men and therefore proportionally it is even more depressing that fewer women hold senior positions. As a married mother of three young adults, I understand that childcare and part time work may still fall to the majority of women and therefore it is argued that women are not in a position to aspire to leadership positions. This is a poor excuse. The workplace should accommodate parents, whatever their gender, and look to encourage ambition in female and male employees in equal measure.
I attended a single-sex grammar school and I do believe my schooling helped me to become a confident woman. My role models in school were strong independent women who gave their students the intellectual freedom to think they could achieve endless possibilities. My sister, who is now a medical doctor, was quiet and studious and despite our different personalities and character, our school encouraged us to have ambition and develop our curiosity for learning.
My children, two sons and one daughter, attended single-sex institutions and school was as supportive and academically challenging an environment for my sons as it was for my daughter. I do not hold with the belief that boys need girls to civilise them at school because I am not sure what that says about the boys or the behavioural policy in those institutions. What must be the experience for the girls if their prime role is to quieten the boys? My sons were able to develop their very different personalities – one is an army doctor and the other a reception class teacher – in an environment that understood their individual learning needs.
This week at Portsmouth High School, we hold our senior school annual parents’ association quiz and there will be no shortage of female members in the teams. Indeed as I set the questions, the quiz master is a woman; but I don’t think Jeremy Paxman need fear for his presenting job just yet. However, having attended an all girls’ school I know never to rule anything out.
This article, written by Jane Prescott, was published in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday 17 October 2017