Women leaders inspiring next generation of North East girls into high-flying careers

The North East's leading ladies in science, business and law touched down at Northumbria University to help young women of the future get ahead. Kate Proctor reports on the ultimate careers advice day

North East Women leaders conference at the Newcastle Business School Northumbria University Campus East
North East Women leaders conference at the Newcastle Business School Northumbria University Campus East

Good at art? Have you thought about being a chef? Like working with people? Give the army a try. Erroneous careers advice is a common tale.

Even at my secondary school with its supposed business and enterprise specialism, I can think of just one person from my year group who found their way into corporate banking.

Granted the financial services sector isn’t hot on the radar of teachers in deepest rural Cumbria, but presenting the options of the world of work could have had a slightly more aspirational edge.

So it’s with some surprise I meet a 16-year-old girl at a high-powered careers event who already has work experience at Virgin Money and Procter & Gamble under her belt.

The ‘North East Women Leaders: Inspiring our region’s young women’ conference organised by the newly formed Newcastle High School for Girls held at Northumbria University is now in its third year and is designed to bring young teens into contact with women making a name for themselves in their chosen profession.

From Sunderland-born Premier League chief lawyer Jane Purdon to Newcastle University’s Professor Ruth Plummer, a pioneering cancer research scientist, the best of the region’s talent arrived in the city to try and inspire the next generation.

Headmistress of Newcastle High School for Girls, Hilary French, said: “The importance of developing leadership skills for women cannot be overrated and it is crucial to start developing these skills early. It is essential that education in school is about more than exam results, the saying that ‘exams open doors but skills lead to a desk to sit at’ is so true.”

Dr Jane Turner, associate dean of business and engagement, Northumbria University and Mags Vaughan, chief executive of fair trade development charity Traidcraft, were also among the speakers addressing 400 schoolgirls.

As well as students from the independent Newcastle High School for Girls, young women from Sacred Heart School and Excelsior Academy in Newcastle, Harton Technology School in South Shields, St Anthony’s School in Sunderland and Churchill Community College in Wallsend, North Tyneside, also got the chance to be part of such a rare gathering of women.

 

Mrs French, who was brought up in Low Fell in Gateshead, and whose parents were both teachers, said the all-girls environment actually fosters aspiration among young women with no barriers to what’s perceived as a traditionally male career path.

“We watched a video at the start of the conference on stereotypes and phrases that get used. Things like ‘running like a girl’ or ‘throwing like a girl’ and the expectation for women to be feminine. Adjectives like ‘fiesty’ and ‘aggressive’ are used about women managers. The conference is a chance for girls to think about what sort of person they want to be.

“In a single sex school we challenge stereotypes all the time. Girls don’t have to apologise for choosing physics, chemistry and maths. Far more girls do those subjects than English and history. From age 11, no-one has ever said a subject isn’t for girls.

“It was easy to get the speakers to come to an event like this. Through our own alumni in the North East there are many groups of women who are really keen to support and help young girls and provide the networking opportunities men have already taken for granted.”

Emma Moreby, 16, from Gosforth, Newcastle, is studying maths, further maths, chemistry, physics and music and would like to follow a career in either finance or chemical research and already has two impressive work experience placements under her belt.

She said: “Our school is really good in sciences. We don’t have subjects like food technology and there’s no male and female distinction.

“I feel like because we have been brought up feeling that you can do just as well as males I don’t think I would ever see there being a barrier to jobs at all.”

Jane Purdon, a former alumni of Central High (which merged with Central Newcastle High School and Church High School earlier this year to create Newcastle High School for Girls) worked at Sunderland AFC and then joined the English Premier League in 2005.

While at Sunderland she was in charge of working out the contracts of multi-million player transfers.

She said: “I think this conference is amazing and I never had something like this. We all need help sometimes in life and the importance of not being afraid to ask for help is vital. It was clear at my school that every door was open to you and there were no barriers in the way.

“There was something about the all girls environment that was positive and affirming.

“The way girls are leading around exams results, do we actually need to support the boys and give them a helping hand?!”

North East Women leaders conference at the Newcastle Business School Northumbria University Campus East
North East Women leaders conference at the Newcastle Business School Northumbria University Campus East
 

Dana Lim, 17, from St Anthony’s Catholic Girls School in Sunderland is studying biology, chemistry, maths and hopes to study go on to become a doctor.

Alongside her classmates she attended the conference listening to the addresses from speakers and then worked as part of a group on projects about careers and long-term aims.

She said the only time she had encountered a difference between female and male education and careers development is in her A-level maths class.

She said: “In maths there have been some modules that were seen as more male like the mechanics module. We know the boys at the local all boys school do that module. Whereas we did statistics.”

Dr Jane Turner, Associate Dean at Newcastle Business School for Business Engagement, said to get 400 young women in one place with such inspiring women was incredible.

She said: “The speakers have been amazing. They are high profile successful women who have given up their time and it’s a very important agenda to raise the aspiration of young women in the North East.

“We’ve seen a rise in the number of women studying law at the university and we also have programme Think Physics to engage more young women to think about sciences.

“Our outreach work and continuing work with schools will be vital to see further changes in female career choices.”

The NEW Leaders Conference programme has been developed by Newcastle High School for Girls GDST in association with Northumbria University, the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, Schools NorthEast and NCJ Media.

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